Sunday, March 21, 2010

balms and salves

when im explaining this class to people, some are surprised when i explain how much it has to offer in the way of direct, daily, real world application. i admit that befor the class started i couldnt have told you what to expect in terms of what we would learn that would be transferable to a life lived in an industrial civilization. so, i can forgive people for needing to have it explained that this isnt all learning how to live without cotton/poly blends, forks and gasoline. 

i would say that actually more of the class has centered around things that can easily find a place in day to day life and less dealing with more extreme ends of primitive living. which makes a lot of sense as ive come to think of it. it would not be feasible to take 8 people and in 9 months change them from petroleum babies into full on cedar bark wearing children of the wild. best to start slow and with practicality. 

in truth wearing cedar bark pants and living in the woods is not really something you can teach someone anyway. you can only take someone so far with the baseline skills before they have to start putting them in to application for themselves. from that point on, with that base line under their belt, its really up to them to decide how far they want to go down the road to full wilderness compliance.

i was recently asked if all this was some sort of new hobby. i think my immediate reaction was to say no, and to explain that it is more than a hobby and that i was hoping to see it develop into a fundamental shift in how i lead my life.

after thinking about it i would now say there is a lot of both.

my hobbies and interests are now turning to reflect the application of new skills into a lifestyle.
when im discussing this lifestyle to people i sometimes feel like im explaining something veiled and esoteric.

but as much as people seem to misconstrue the implications of the word primitive, or what a class of primitive skills may entail they are more and more being surrounded by reflections of primitive living in industrial society. the difference is that it is presented in a commercially digestible format. think about naturopathy. think about the phrase "sustainable living". herbalists, local farming, whole foods, green living. there are even restaurants now offering a fare of wild harvest

these movements are perceived as something novel, revolutionary or profound. but really they are just aspects of pre-agriculture lifestyle being unintentionally re-discovered and incorporated into modern industrial civilization. they are all worthy investments but more and more they seem to be turning into things that can be bought and sold as another commercialized commodity and i cant help but think that something is lost as peoples' participation takes on the role of passive consumer. one of the greatest things about primitive skills is that there is an implicit foundation for community. the jobs are shared as well as the production of the effort. there is no distinction between producer and consumer.

i think thats what throws some people off when im telling them about this. it doesnt have a package so its hard to understand how it can have "real life" application. i think people are so used to things, both knowledge and goods, being presented in a context of industrial living that its easy to see why someone might mistake this kind of modification in lifestyle as a hobby.

so allow me to present a package we are all familiar with: 

   bottles with labels!

when all is said and done im the last person to say anything bad about making a living doing something you love and after seeing how easy this balm and salve making thing can be its a strong temptation to try my hand at some larger production. farmers market here i come. thats DOCTOR dorr to you.

starting on the bottom left with the doug fir salve, the most complicated to process.


collect pitch from fir trees and/or pine trees and melt in a pot. this can be done by tapping the tree or less invasively just by looking for trees with weeping sap usually around areas where the tree has been wounded by falling limbs, trees, passing trucks etc. lots can be found in logging areas.

strain the melted sap through a sieve to remove all foreign matter, bits of tree, pine needles etc. the resulting substance is like melted candy and smells about as good so watch it. after youve huffed enough of it the room starts spinning and its not so much fun anymore. over a low heat this is mixed with ratios of olive oil and beeswax. when using olive oil in balms and salves its best to keep it below 130 degrees F. if it gets too hot it can break down, creating free radicals and leading to spoilage.

pour from the pan through a final, fine straining. here we strained through a small bag of cheese cloth, right into the small jars. ideally the faster the mixture gets into the jars the better since it will soon be cooling into a waxy balm.

when using medicinal herbs to make ointments the herbs are soaked for a period no less than 6 weeks in olive oil. even as much as a year when using something thats very resiny like cotton wood buds. olive oil is recommended first, because the cold press variety  is very stable and will keep for a long time. second it has itself some very soothing medicinal properties. if the herbs are picked fresh and are very moist they should be dried before being added to the oil. a good guideline is a half and half mixture of herb to oil. this will vary on how the herb behaves in the oil while soaking. if it compresses and stays low, more of the herb can be put in the mix. if the herb expands as it soaks, less herb and more oil should be put in to the container. 

next to the fir pitch is the healing salve made with calendula, comfrey and plantain. a note on these plants: each of them has the genus name 'officianale'. when a plant has officianale in its scientific name it can be inferred that there is a long history of this plant as a prime medicinal herb. calendula is very soothing, acting as a mild anesthetic, it is also anti-viral, anti inflammatory. comfrey contains what is called cell proliferants. these compounds enable skin cells to multiply much faster, repairing wounds. it has been shown to work so effectively that if used on wounds too deep the compounds will enable the wound to close over at the surface faster than from the bottom, which will sometimes cause an abscess. in the case of deep wounds a thinner infusion of comfrey is best to use as a wash rather than in an ointment. plantain has a powerful ability to draw out of wounds contaminants, infections and poisons. in the absence of a salve, with plantain available, the plants are unbeatable when used as a poultice to treat wounds, bites, stings.

next to that is the lip balm. i wish i had gotten more pictures of this process only because it was funny to watch the effort of trying to pour the hot mixture of beeswax and oil into those tiny tubes. but i was the one doing the pouring, trying not to laugh.

on top is balm of gilead made from cotton wood buds

cotton wood buds

the resin of cotton wood buds is strong with anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. it also acts like a natural aspirin, easing the pain of bad burns, scrapes and abrasions. it also happens to smell......well, its hard to just say it smells very good and leave it at that. thats not quite enough. but all the descriptors i think of to try and get closer dont seem adequate either. soothing, peaceful... almost

as hard as it may be to believe, i dont really have words for it. some of it may be something nostalgic, something from some pre-memory childhood emotion that was particularly pleasant. i would not be surprised if my reaction is a bit more melodramatic than others but everyone agrees that it is incredibly pleasant. i think there is something in it that is like a reassurance. its this feeling that you are being looked out for. that while nature is cold, indifferent and violent it is also, everywhere placing within your grasp the means to survive and be raised up in health and in comfort.

prepackaged or otherwise.


  1. I'm loving the blog.
    I'm hesitant to agree with such a strong stance on commoditizing things that are "easy" to do yourself. Not everyone has the time or energy to make everything from scratch all of the time, every time. There is a place for packaged goods (as well as a need for work opportunities in this society). As long as the producer is doing it right, and without harm to nature or others, then I think it is great that they are able to make a profit from it. As soon as it turns into a machine and corners are cut, then it is a problem. I know that is a pretty fine line though.

  2. P.S. - Whenever you get around to selling the stuff, please don't use that fucking awful 'Papyrus' font like all the other hippies seem to do.