Amazing Lactobacilli

photo of corn, tomato, onion melange in canning jarSix weeks ago I made a quart of lacto-fermented corn relish. It was an experiment, because corn in its ordinary state – boiled, slathered with butter, and gnawed from the cob – makes me very ill. Sad, since I love the taste. I hoped lacto-fermented corn might not irritate my system When our CSA delivered yet another eight ears of corn, I decided to risk it. And it went well! I can eat lacto-fermented corn with nary a murmur from my digestion. Plus it tastes like seconds, thirds, and fourths!

(I know. I said that before about the eggplant dish below, but it’s true!)

images depicting traditional peoples from around the worldSo let me tell you about lacto-fermentation. The corn relish recipe was my own creation, but I learned the principles from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.

Lactobacilli – lactic acid producing bacteria – are everywhere. They thrive on the surface of all living things and are particularly numerous on the roots and leaves of low-growing plants.

Lactic acid is a natural preservative. It inhibits the action of bacteria that produce decay. Before the invention of freezers or canning machines, cooks preserved vegetables and fruits by lacto-fermentation.

The benefits of lacto-fermentation go far beyond mere preservation, however.

Lacto-fermented foods:
• are more digestible
• make their nutrients more bio-available to our bodies
• possess higher vitamin levels
• acquire many helpful enzymes during lacto-fermentation
• include substances that kill harmful bacteria and prevent cancer
• promote the growth of healthy flora along the entire length of the intestine.

Lacto-fermented or “pickled” cabbage was (and is) popular worldwide. Europe developed sauerkraut; Latin America, cortido; Korea, kimchi; and Japan, tsukemono. But many other vegetables (and fruits) respond delisciously to lacto-fermentation: cucumber, corn, and watermelon rind, to name a few.

Lacto-fermentated foods are easy and fun to prepare at home. There’s something magical to the process – a little like baking, in which dough transforms into bread or cake or cookies, but requiring less hands-on prep and little precision.

The basic recipe goes as follows. Wash your fruits or vegetables thoroughly. Chop or shred or grate them and mix with sea salt and homemade whey. Pound the mix briefly with a wooden mallet. Then press the mass into a canning jar, leaving an inch of headroom at the top, and seal firmly. Leave the jar at room temperature for two to four days, then refrigerate. Fruits will keep for two months. Vegetables stay good indefinitely. (Experts consider sauerkraut to be best after six months!)

Speaking of sauerkraut, here’s a bit of trivia about it and a famous navigator of the past. Captain Cook loaded sixty barrels of the stuff onto his ship before embarking on his second trip around the world. None of the crew developed scurvy. (Sauerkraut has a lot of vitamin C.) And twenty-seven months later, when Cook was nearing home again, the last barrel was opened. It remained perfectly preserved – despite its long journey through every kind of weather and warmth – and delicious. When served to Portuguese nobles visiting aboard, the partial barrel was carried away to share with friends!

One more jot of trivia: ketchup was once a lacto-fermented food. The word derives from ke-tsiap, a Chinese Amoy term for a pickled fish sauce. (Fish sauce was the universal condiment of the ancient world.) The English added mushroom, walnut, cucumber, and oyster to fish sauce to create their own version. Then Americans added tomatoes for another unique take on the flavor enhancer. American ketchup is now largely high fructose corn syrup, but it is possible for the home cook to return to the old artisanal method of concocting it. (But that’s another blog post!)

What about my corn relish? Are you clamoring for the recipe? It’s worth trying, but I’m going to recommend that you start with sauerkraut instead. Corn relish is a simple recipe, but sauerkraut is the most basic of all. And I think you’ll be delighted with its taste – much fresher than the vinegar-laden and pasteurized stuff from the grocery store. I promise I’ll post the corn relish recipe when fresh corn is back in season!

Update: Corn did eventually come back in season, and I made more corn relish! The recipe is posted here.

Sauerkraut

1 large cabbage

2 tablespoons sea salt
(not ordinary shaker salt, which has additives that damage lacto-fermentation)

1/2 cup homemade whey
(draining and using the excess liquid from any yogurt with live cultures works fine)

The cabbage should be of high quality and preferably organic. Pesticide residues can kill lactobacilli and interfere with lacto-fermentation.

Wash the cabbage, peel off the outermost leaves and discard, and remove and discard the stem stalk and the densest part of the core. Then shred the cabbage. The grating attachment in a food processor works nicely, but you can also simply slice the cabbage with a chef knife.

Put the shredded cabbage in a large, sturdy bowl. Add the salt and the whey. Lightly pound the mixture with a wooden mallet for 10 minutes to release the cabbage juices.

(I know. My mallet is metal, and it shouldn’t be. A wooden one is on my shopping list. Why? The whey can damage metal utensils over time. As you can see, my meat pounder is undamaged after 2 years of use. But I still intend to get something wooden. Just not in any rush!)

Transfer the mixture into a pair of quart-sized canning jars. Press the cabbage down firmly in the jars until the juices come up to cover the cabbage. Be sure there is an inch of headroom between the cabbage and the lids. The cabbage will expand slightly while lacto-fermenting. Tighten the lids securely. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process.

Let the jars rest on your counter at room temperature for 2 – 4 days (2 if it’s summer or you’re using the oven a lot, 4 if it’s winter and you keep your house cool).

Then move the jars to the fridge. Let the kraut mature for 3 weeks to develop the best flavor. Serve!

Some people add caraway seed to the ferment. I tried it, but find cabbage straight up to be tastiest!

Once you’ve eaten a serving of your batch, visit here again and tell me what you think! Good?

 

For more Nourishing Traditions posts, see:
Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!
Handle with Care
Beet Kvass

More Recipes
Sautéed Eggplant
Coconut Salmon
Baked Carrots

 

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Duplicity, Diplomacy, Secrets & Ciphers

Four of my favorite fiction reads.

two brothers face off against a backdrop of outer spaceAction marries philosophy! Mark Vorkosigan embarks on a quest as the knight errant he imagines his brother Miles to be. And it all goes horribly wrong. To save both himself and his brother, Mark must confront, navigate, and triumph over the hell lurking within his own soul — a hell mapping his most broken and wounded places — while devising a way to defeat a sadistic enemy.

Mirror Dance at Amazon

Mirror Dance at B&N

 

 

A diplomat and his two bodyguards, space station in backgroundHuman mediator Bren Cameron wields diplomacy, wit, and cultural sensitivity to keep an unstable peace. His alien atevi friends wield lethal force to do the same. Will their unorthodox partnership be enough? C.J. Cherryh creates the most exotic and immersive alien culture ever!

Foreigner at Amazon

Foreigner at B&N

 

 

 

Brun is space armor with weaponDescendant of admirals, Heris Serrano resigns her military commission under a cloud and accepts the captaincy of a luxury pleasure yacht. Could she sink lower? Even disgraced officers must eat. But Heris discovers that opportunity to confront the enemy while serving something larger than oneself hides in unexpected places. The fox she hunts under Lady Cecelia’s aegis proves wilier than V. vulpes and viler than a mere beast.

Hunting Party at Amazon

Hunting Party at B&N

 

 

View of the way to Babylon along a deep chasmEarth needs three Magids – magical guardians who nudge the right people to do the right things at the right time. Three, but one of them just died. Rupert Venables, the junior-most, seeks a replacement. Unfortunately his top candidate can’t stand Rupert. And, after their aggravating first encounter, Rupert can’t stand her either. If only the other four candidates weren’t worse. And if only the fate of the entire multiverse didn’t stand in the balance. Deep Secret romps from plans gone awry through grievous first impressions to ancient secrets hidden in plain sight.

 

Deep Secret at Amazon

Deep Secret at B&N

 

For more of my favorite reads, check these posts:
Beauty, Charm, Cyril & Montmorency
Mistakes, Missteps, Shady Dealing & Synchronicity
Courtship and Conspiracy, Mayhem and Magic
Gods & Guilt, Scandals & Skeptics

 

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Running Mushrooms

image depicting old growth forestFirst, a confession: I didn’t read every page of Mycelium Running. I didn’t even read most of them! So why am I telling you about this book? The half of it I did read was amazing. But let me explain.

Mycelium Running is a manual geared toward practicalities, toward getting out there and getting your hands dirty. If you need to know how to heal an ailing forest under your care, how to purify bacteria-laden water running off your land, or how to restore your compacted and abused back yard, then Paul Stamets’ book will tell you exactly what you need to know.

But I’m not quite ready for action. I do hope to tackle my clay-imbued and weed-strewn garden over the next few years, but I’ve got other projects ahead of that one on my to-do list. Mostly I’m gathering facts, seeking to understand the big picture. And Mycelium Running is good for that too – especially the earlier chapters. Thus I dare bring it to your attention.

The basic facts of mycelium are fascinating. And the scope of its influence and potential are far beyond anything I might have imagined. Frankly, before I read Mycelium Running, I hadn’t thought much about mushrooms. I loved eating them sautéed in butter. I enjoyed spotting them during August nature walks. And I took pleasure in whimsical paintings featuring fey dancers amidst mushroom circles. Essentially, I was ignorant!

Which meant I loved the experience of having my eyes opened. (Yes, nothing like tickling my curiosity!)

But what is mycelium anyway? The dictionary names it the vegetative part of a fungus. It consists of a mass of branching, thread-like filaments called hyphae. Healthy soils harbor colonies of mycelia, but tree bark or fallen leaves or your compost heap (if, cool) also feed mycelial or fungal mats.

Fungi eat by secreting acids and enzymes into their surroundings and then absorbing the created nutrients through the cells of their mycelia.

The mushrooms we notice springing from a forest floor or among the grass blades of a lawn are almost a side show of the drama hidden below ground. That’s where the real action transpires. Spores released from a mushroom (the fruiting body of the fungus) germinate like plant seeds when they encounter the right moisture, temperature, and nutrients. From microscopic grains, they grow and branch, and grow and branch, creating a mycelial mat. Mycelial mats vary in size. The one supporting the health of a birch tree in your front yard might be just a few feet across. But one mycelium in eastern Oregon – Armillaria or honey mushroom – once covered 2,400 acres!

But more than just odd trivia make mycelia cool. In fact, I can’t confine myself to just three cool things. Here are six!

Mycelia Partner Plants

Most plants – from grasses to Douglas firs – have mycorrhizal mycelia as partners. These mycelia form sheaths around the plant roots and bring nutrients and moisture to the host plant, spreading a net far wider than the roots alone could do. And actively creating nutrients with the action of its enzymes and acids.

Plants with mycorrhizal partners thrive, growing faster and stronger than those without, and resisting diseases better. Their root masses are larger and denser. Their stems or trunks are thicker and taller. Their branches are leafier. The difference is dramatic. And some plants won’t grow at all without their attendant mycelia.

Mycellium is Nature’s Internet

The physical structure of mycelia shares the branching architecture of neural pathways in the mammalian brain. It also mirrors diagrams of the internet’s information-sharing systems. Mycelia might very well be the feedback loop by which planet Earth regulates its ecosystems. They certainly respond in complex ways to complex environments.

In one experiment, researchers mapped the flow of nutrients via mycellium between a Douglas fir, a paper birch, and a western red cedar. The researchers covered the fir, simulating deep shade. The mycellium responded by channeling sugars from the root zone of the birch to the root zone of the fir (which was unable to photosynthesize the sugars it needed).

Outside the lab, mycelia build soil, remove contaminants such as spilled diesel fuel, and filter bacteria out of polluted water.

Could mycelia possess a form of intelligence never envisioned by humans? Impossible to say at this point in history, but the biochemical connections formed by mycelia surpass those of supercomputers. And the organisms display nuanced responses to the world around them. Perhaps our next generation of computers will use fungi instead of copper micro-wire for hardware.

Even Parasites Bring Benefit

The most famous parasitic mushroom, Armillaria or the honey mushroom, is stigmatized as a blight. It can destroy thousands of acres of forest and is banned in many areas. But look again, and look longer. Parasitic fungi may serve to select the strongest plants for survival and to repair damaged habitats. Each time Armillaria swept through that 2,400-acre spot in Oregon, it created nurse logs for more directly benign fungi, it increased soil depth, and it covered barren rock with rich humus. The stage was set for a vibrant revival of habitats and ecosystems.

Mushrooms Lead Eco-restoration

Consider forest fires. The first species to appear amidst the ash and cinders are mushrooms – typically morels and cup fungi. They’re fast-growing and quick to decompose. As they mature and release spores, they also emit fragrances that attract insects and mammals. The insects attract birds, and all these newcomers bring seeds with them. Soon the wasteland burgeons with life – all starting with fungi.

Timber Is Not a Renewable Resource

The old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest accessible to loggers are largely gone. The first two replantings of logged areas are gone as well. Logging companies are now harvesting the third. But no one is making plans for a fourth replanting. Why? With each clear cut, the mycelia of the forest is damaged and the soil grows both thinner and poorer. You can’t get good wood from trees growing in exhausted soils, so many logging companies are selling their land.

Mushrooms Are Renewable

Now consider another patch of forest, this one in south central Oregon. Imagine harvesting timber from it. You’d get a substantial financial return, but eventually you’d reach the end of what you could profitably extract. When you were done, the land would be effectively barren.

But what if you harvested matsutake mushrooms – tasty and desirable – instead? The economic benefit would equal that of the timber (actual calculations have been done), but each year you’d also get thicker soils, reduced erosion, increased stream health, greater biodiversity, improving air quality, and increased regional cooling. And it can go on forever.

I’ll take it!

 

And do I recommend this book?

I do.

Just don’t try to read it from cover to cover. Begin with part one, where the big picture info is dense. As technicalities creep in, start skipping a bit. Part two held my interest. Part three is where I touched down lightly. (I’m not ready for mushrooms species specifics yet!)

I’m normally a cover-to-cover reader, but this book was worth adjusting my reading style for. It changed my world view. Again! Give it a try. It might change yours!

Mycelium Running at Amazon

Mycelium Running at B&N

For more green living concepts, see:
Permaculture Gardening
Green Housekeeping
Grass Green

For more cool science trivia, see:
Water

 

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Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!

My nutritional education began under the aegis of my mother. Judged against the backdrop of the sixties, she was a pioneer, actively pursuing the benefits of serving whole grain breads, breastfeeding her babies, eating multiple servings of raw vegetables, and curtailing sugar intake. Compared to Wonder® bread, bottle feeding, miniscule portions of frozen corn-carrots-peas mix, and dessert every night after dinner, her choices represented a miracle of enlightenment. (Yay, Mom! Thank you!)

But she was also influenced by her time. Who isn′t? She gave up butter for margarine. (Transfats, anyone?) She remained unaware of the dangers of improperly prepared grains (those unfermented or unsprouted). She drifted toward a high-carb, low-fat diet. (As an adult, I did, too.)

So my own nutritional knowledge had a better foundation than that of my contemporaries, but it also featured serious deficits.

My first inkling that I′d gone astray arrived gradually and confusingly as health issues. It seemed there were more and more foods I could not eat without feeling really ill in the hours after my meal. Doctors had no real answers, other than telling me to keep a food diary. I did this, and the list of DO-NOT-EAT grew and grew. It was discouraging and inconvenient. I felt ill too often. And when my friends invited me over for dinner, they faced a Herculean task, if they wanted me to actually eat the foods they′d prepared.

Then I met a local dairywoman with a small family farm. She clued me into the fact that conventional dairy cows receive a soy-based feed. The soy proteins come through in their milk. Maybe it wasn′t cow milk that made me sick after all! Maybe it was the soy proteins.

Kathryn also knew that soy is added as filler to many foods, and not only the obvious candidates such as canned soup. It′s in canned tunafish. It′s in pizza (the tomato sauce and the cheese). It′s in conventional roast chicken, injected under the skin to add moisture to the breast meat. If you have trouble digesting soy . . . watch out! It′s a soy world out there.

I grew vigilant in detecting (and avoiding) soy. My health problems cleared up. Wow! I was thrilled.

But Kathryn had more to teach me. She recommended the book Pasture Perfect (which I shared with you a few weeks ago, here). That was the start of the real revolution in my thinking. Obviously there were a lot of things my mother never told me. And, like most of us, I′d been listening to the media and the mainstream medical establishment about what was healthy to eat and what was not. (Doctors are not taught nutrition, by the way. They′re reading the same newspapers and magazines as their patients!)

images depicting traditional peoples from around the worldThe next book featured in my continuing education was a doozie: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig. Kathryn followed its precepts, but never recommended it to me. I suspect she thought it would be too challenging for my PC thinking! She didn′t know me well enough to realize that the sheer novelty of the concepts (novel to me, millenia-old to humankind) would ignite my curiosity.

The tale of how I discovered that Nourishing Traditions held an honored place on Kathryn′s shelves is convoluted enough (and rather beside the point) that I won′t spend the paragraphs to recount it. Suffice it to say, I did discover the book, checked it out from the library, and was blown away by its contents. It′s a cookbook with hundreds of recipes, but it′s also a nutritional manual, packed with the wisdom accumulated by traditional peoples over the ages. Their food ways kept them healthy and strong, generation after generation, before doctors and medical science achieved modern power.

Nourishing Traditions is so dense with amazing information, my customary sharing of ″3 cool things″ not only can′t do it justice, but risks serious misrepresentation. I′ll be sharing 3 cool things from the first chapter today. (With more chapters following at intervals across the next half year.)

The Ancient Art of Culturing Milk

photo of fresh milk, homemade whey, homemade yogurtDrinking unfermented milk from dairy animals is a new and modern development. Without pasteurization and refrigeration, milk sours and separates quickly. Before the age of industry, traditional people harnessed this property for their advantage. During the process of lacto-fermentation, friendly bacteria that produce lactic acid (think yogurt) break down both milk sugar (lactose) and milk protein (casein). Over time, they produce enough lactic acid to inactivate all putrefying bacteria. The milk reaches a state in which it is safely preserved for days or even weeks. (Longer for cheeses.)

Different cultures had different methods and produced different end products. Europeans once consumed clabber and curds and whey, as well as the more familiar yogurt and cheese. In Russia, one found kefir and koumiss. In Scandinavia, there were longfil and kjaeldermelk. In the Middle East: laban. India: dahi. France: crème fraîche (still popular). Germany: cultured butter. All over the globe, shaped by their unique climate, terrain, and history, traditional people cultured milk. It′s a practice worth reviving more fully today.

Fight Osteoporosis and Lactose Intolerance

The fermenting of milk creates many benefits. Casein, the milk protein, is one of the most difficult to digest. Breaking it down via fermentation renders it digestible. Culturing also restores or multiplies the helpful enzymes in milk. One of them, lactase, aids the digestion of lactose (milk sugar). Other enzymes help the body absorb calcium and other minerals. Plus vitamins B and C both increase during fermentation. A ″witch′s brew″ of fermented milk is significantly more nutritious than the basic, conventional white stuff!

Viruses & Germs, Take That!

Most of us know that eating yogurt after a round of antibiotics restores the proper functioning of the gut. What I didn′t understand was that the benefits of healthy gut fauna are both more essential and more comprehensive than bouncing back from a sinus infection.

Friendly lacto-bacilli and the lactic acid they produce are just as much a part of moving nutrients from our food into our bodies′ cells as the actual structures and organs of digestion: mouth, stomach, pancreas, etc. Could we assimilate our food well without our intestines? Well, the friendly bacteria are just as necessary. In addition, these friendly bacteria keep unfriendly intruders at bay. There′s a reason traditional peoples fed fermented milk to the sick, the aged, and to nursing mothers. These vulnerable individuals needed all the bolstering they could get.

Strong bones, fewer stomach aches, more complete transfer of nutrients, less illness. What′s not to like?!

* * *

The chapter on cultured dairy products continues with recipes for piima, buttermilk, crème fraîche, kefir, and other tasty comestibles along with the foundational whey needed by the cook to make many of the dishes featured in later chapters. Margin notes provide vignettes into the kitchens of traditional peoples and the wonders they worked there. It′s an intriguing read, but it also turned many of my own mistaken notions upside down.

Education, entertainment, and health-saving practice all in one package. I couldn′t resist, and I′m glad I didn′t.

Nourishing Traditions at Amazon

Nourishing Traditions at B&N

For more Nourishing Traditions posts, see:
Amazing Lactobacilli
Handle with Care
Beet Kvass

For more on books important to continuing nutritional education, see:
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Why Seed Oils Are Dangerous

 

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Green Housekeeping

There′s a lot of ″green″ advice in books, in magazines, and online. Too much of it describes what we should do, or what might be good to do, or what somebody plans to do. We all know what happens when theory gets practical: the bugs jump out.

house-shaped windows of green texturesGreen Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck is a different animal altogether. Too quirky to be anything but real, the book describes her actual experience and why her practice is effective.

I′ll follow my ″three cool things″ format of recommendation, starting with the method that won my own housekeeping-averse heart.

Cleaning Simplicity

There are two magic ingredients: vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Both are safe, natural substances produced by living organisms. (Our own bodies actually create hydrogen peroxide – H2O2 – as a byproduct of our metabolism.)

When hydrogen peroxide encounters organic material (think germs) it releases its extra oxygen atom, becoming mere water (H2O) in the process. That′s what all that foaming and bubbling is when you spray: the extra oxygen is popping off and killing bacteria.

Vinegar kills a lot of bacteria on its own, but hydrogen peroxide kills 100 times as many. When you give a squirt of both, you get another tenfold increase.

Let′s look at some numbers. Say a splash of vinegar from your spray bottle kills 1000 bacteria. A misting of hydrogen peroxide alone would zap 100,000 bacteria. While a spray of both gets 1 million. But all that′s left after spraying is harmless water. No chemical residue. I like it!

photo of safe cleaning solutionsAll you need is a spray bottle of vinegar and an original bottle of hydrogen peroxide with a sprayer cap screwed onto it. Put one pair in your kitchen and another in each bathroom. You′re set to keep those critical places safely clean.

Why the original bottle? Hydrogen peroxide loses its extra oxygen very easily. Just decanting it into another container can make that happen, as can light shining through a translucent spray bottle. You want water as an end product after cleaning, not as a starter!

Once I placed my paired solutions on location, I found myself using them frequently. Not running to fetch them was just as magical as the solutions themselves. (Needing to fetch often leads to not fetching at all, for me.) Just: squirt! squirt! done! (Or add a quick swipe with the microfiber rag kept by the bottles, if adhering toothpaste or avocado needs a scrub.) Cleaner sinks!

Laundry Boost

photo of laundry product named BerryPlusI use Berry+ and soap ″nuts″ to launder clothes and household linens. Soap ″nuts″ (or soapberries) are fruits of the tree sapindus mukorossi. The fruits can be used dried or to create a liquid extract (Berry+).

Why don′t I choose one or the other?

Convenience.

We do a lot of cold water laundry loads. I love being able to pop open a capsule of Berry+, pour it into the washer, close the lid, start the cycle, and go.

photo of soap nuts loose in a dish plus a laundry bag full of themSoap nuts must either be soaked for 5 minutes in warm water (then dumped along with the soak water into the washer) or tossed into a washer destined for a warm or hot water wash. Since my husband and I are both allergic to dust mites, our sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and towels must be laundered in water over 130°F. (The high temp gets rid of the allergens.) Soap nuts are perfect for that job.

The advantage of both soap nuts and Berry+ is that the outflow spilling from my washer to the water treatment plant is non-toxic. Soapberries have been used by the peoples of Asia and by Native Americans for thousands of years. That′s time tested!

I fell in love with soapberries when I found that my berry-laundered clothes developed almost zero static cling in the dryer and emerged from it smelling faintly of freshly ironed cotton. Yum!

(Alas, yes, I do use a dryer. Although our drying rack is usually equally full once I′ve emptied the washer.)

But what to do when the grass stains or the clay stains or whatever need extra cleaning? Sometimes spot treatment with Berry+ will do the trick. Sometimes it won′t.

Ellen Sandbeck′s chapter on laundry educated me about an old-fashioned product that′s never truly left the cleaning lexicon and is now enjoying a resurgence of use: 20 Mule Team Borax, around since 1891.

photo of box of 20 Mule Team BoraxBorax is a naturally occurring mineral salt composed of boron, sodium, oxygen, and water. It functions as a water softener, fabric softener, deodorant, and mild bleach. I add 2 – 4 tablespoons of it to a load when I face especially challenging laundry. (Or apply a paste of it to the stubborn spot.)

Is it perfect?

No.

But it′s helpful to have a stronger benign option in my tool kit.

The Well-Tempered Clavier

Sandbeck compares a happy home to J.S. Bach′s harpsichord after it has been tuned by the method he invented. No one key is perfectly in tune, but all are sufficiently so to sound good. Compromises must be made. (The method before Bach′s invention resulted in one key perfectly in tune and the rest decidedly out of tune.)

Sandbeck says: ″Most people are happiest and at ease in homes that are moderately clean and neat. Both extremes . . . tend to make people unhappy and uncomfortable.″ Also: ″The well-tempered house should be just neat and clean enough to make both the neatest person and the sloppiest person in the household just a tiny bit dissatisfied.″

Sounds fair to me!

* * *

Those are my three favorite snippets from Green Housekeeping, but the book′s packed with tips. Your favorites will likely be different than mine, since homes vary as much as their inhabitants. I invite you to find yours!

Green Housekeeping at Amazon

Green Housekeeping at B&N

Berry+ at reuseit.com

Soap Nuts at NaturOli

For more on green living, see:
Grass Green
Great Soap & Etcetera Quest
Wrapping with Cloth

 

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Beauty, Charm, Cyril & Montmorency

I′ve shared many of my favorite non-fiction reads with you. I thing it′s long past time that I share favorite fiction! Here are four of the best.

illustration of rosesBeauty′s given name is Honour. Her nickname comes of a child′s childlike error, but the name chosen by her parents is no mistake. That quality will get her into trouble and out again in the course of this fabulous retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty at Amazon

Beauty at B&N

 
 
 

illustration showing Cat and Gwendolyn ChantYoung Cat Chant endures great changes and great losses, all the while clinging to his big sister Gwendolyn. But Cat must learn to stand on his own two feet and to make his own decisions. The safety of his world depends on it.

The Chronicles of Chrestomancy I:
Charmed Life
& The Lives of Christopher Chant
at Amazon

The Chronicles of Chrestomancy I:
Charmed Life
& The Lives of Christopher Chant
at B&N

 
 

montage image of cathedral, cat, Ned, VerityA romp through miscommunication, cross purposes, and the Victorian era turns serious when time travel creates a paradox. Ned Henry sets off to correct the anomaly with the goal of doctor-prescribed recuperation from time lag after he restores the space-time continuum, but said restoration grows more complex by the minute.

To Say Nothing of the Dog at Amazon

To Say Nothing of the Dog at B&N

 
 

illustration of men boating on the ThamesGeorge, Harris, J, and J′s dog embark on a boat trip up the Thames River in search of rest, recuperation, and recreation. The three men agree that their livers or other organs are out of order and office work is the cause. Rest and recuperation receive short shrift, but humorous adventure ensues.

Three Men in a Boat at Amazon

Three Men in a Boat at B&N

 
 
 
 

For more of my favorite reads, check these posts:
Duplicity, Diplomacy, Secrets & Ciphers
Mistakes, Missteps, Shady Dealing & Synchronicity
Courtship and Conspiracy, Mayhem and Magic
Gods & Guilt, Scandals & Skeptics

 

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We Are Readers!

Some of my favorite reads have stolen upon me unawares. I remember my first encounter with the story: sheer magic! But how did I come to pull that book off the shelf? Select that particular author? I have no idea. The frame surrounding other discoveries grabs more memory.

I’ll never forget the how and why for one such blissful moment – a two-in-one, really, because the adventure brought two books, two authors my way.

I was in New York City with the entire fourth year class of the Architecture School. The two days of touring architectural highlights under the aegis of our professors were interesting and entertaining. I’d seen a lot of those buildings via slide projector in lecture class. Meeting them up-close-and-personal was satisfying. But the field trip came with an unavoidable challenge.

Most of my sister students had at least one friend in the A-school; some, many. I had none. My friends were among the RPG crowd, and they were grad students, or a year older than me, or a year younger, and all were in the College of Arts and Sciences.

So I came to New York friendless. This was no problem during the day while touring. I did have acquaintances with whom to trade commentary on the sights. It was the one night we would all spend in a hotel that provoked my uneasiness.

I’d been assigned to a room with three young women intent on enjoying the night clubs. They were nice enough to me. They were more than nice, actually, urging me to come with them and have some fun, exhibiting none of the social brutality common in high schools. (Who knew college would bring such civility?)

The rub was . . . I wasn’t keen on bar hopping. Yet saying, “thank you, but no,” seemed . . . so anti-social, so boorish, so unappreciative of their willingness to include. I wanted to say no, but I also wanted them to think well of me. And I wasn’t sure which choice would result in a greater sense of loneliness: out with a three friends who weren’t my friends? or skulking alone in a hotel room? Ugh! What a choice!

While I dithered, I got ready for clubbing: gauze peasant blouse in blues and greens with a tassel tie at the neck, woven leather shoes with a low heel (comfortable for dancing), and very tight jeans.

It looked like I was going out with my room mates willy nilly, borne along on the tide of their persuasion. They were sure: of course I’d have a better time with them.

I checked my pockets. Hard to do. Did I say those jeans were tight? I’d stored my money – a fifty dollar bill – in a pocket in the jeans in a dresser drawer in the hotel. Now was the time I would need it.

My pockets were empty.

One of the hotel maids must have done some rummaging while we were sightseeing.

Oh, there was a fuss! The hotel management was summoned. We got no change from them. Silly Virginia girl! Why did you leave your money in your hotel room? My room mates insisted on lending me money – enough for a night on the town. (They’d brought hundreds!)

I declined. There I felt no ambivalence. My college budget was tighter than my jeans. I’d borrowed $10 from each month to have some cash for this trip. I would need the sum remaining to get through the semester. If I borrowed money from my generous companions, I wouldn’t be able to pay them back. Or else I’d be unable to pay my share of the pizza order when I returned to my RPG mates.

The field trip ladies were regretful about my choice, clearly worried I’d be miserable. (I did say they were nice, right? They were nice.) But I was resolute, and they went off to their evening’s delight. I felt . . . relieved.

So, there I was, alone in a hotel room with nothing to do. (I was never a big TV watcher.) But I knew I’d figure it out. What next?

Surely dinner of some sort. My $50 was gone; luckily I had a few smaller bills, change left over from the day’s expenses. I’d noticed two deli’s in the same block as the hotel. And . . . there’d been a bookstore in the next block over! Abruptly my plans for the evening gelled. I was set! Why had I dithered and worried? A reader always has options.

One of the deli’s supplied me with a sandwich in a paper bag, and then I trundled off to the bookstore.

These were the days when bookstores still displayed their wares on wire racks with the book covers facing out. This bookstore, being in New York, had five segments (or more) devoted to SF&F. I was in heaven, browsing and browsing and browsing. Here was happy indecision. Which book would I chose?

After perhaps half an hour, it came down to two. Which should I carry away with me? Beauty by Robin McKinley? Or Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones? I dithered just as much as when faced with bar hopping, but this was a better choice: between two good’s, not two bad’s.

A startling idea popped into my head. Why not buy both? As a cash-strapped college student, I bought my books one at a time. But – I did some quick math – I had just enough money to splurge with a few pennies left over. Why not? I went home tomorrow.

You know how I answered that one.

Which book did I read first? That I don’t remember. But memory is vivid regarding the gestalt. I lounged on my hotel bed, well propped with pillows, munching my sandwich, and devouring the stories. I entered . . . not heaven (this was better than that), but a fairy tale city where three sisters grappled with loosing all their fortune and confronted the adventure that came to them in the cool forested land where they settled. I followed a young witch-boy struggling with betrayal and greatness in the steampunk world of Chrestomancy.

That night alone in a New York hotel room still ranks as one of the best in my life. I’m a reader, and I’m guessing you might be too. Have you ever had an unpleasantness (or a disaster) rescued by a good read?

I was grateful my room mates stayed out til one! I had time to savor both my treasures in peace and solitude. And was happy to greet the returning trio (not drunk, thank you) with good cheer and assurances that I’d passed an enjoyable evening.

In justice to the hotel maids, I must report that they had not stolen my $50. Remember those tight jeans? (I did say they were tight, right?) Apparently I didn’t push my fingers deep enough into my pinched pocket. The money was there all along.

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Our Universe is Amazing

curved spacetime on a black fieldBrian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is my favorite non-fiction read. I’ve traveled its pages only three times thus far, because its concepts give my brain a workout. The prose is elegant (like our universe!) and accessible, but understanding the physical underpinnings of the cosmos is not something I do easily. I labor. And, yet, by book’s end, I feel like I’ve been peeking over the shoulder of the divine, granted a view of miracle. That’s worth some effort!

Greene starts with an entertaining overview of Einstein’s principles of special relativity and general relativity. I grin through this section, because his examples are amusing. In my latest perusal, I noticed a nugget about how we navigate spacetime that had previously escaped either my notice or my memory. (Amidst all the other wonders presented.)

Time Travel

We are always in motion, even when sitting still, both because we traverse time and because our planet whooshes ever onward around our sun, around our galaxy, and across the universe. However, Einstein’s principles of relativity allow me to declare myself as still in space when occupying my armchair reading The Elegant Universe.

When I’m not sitting and reading (or sitting and writing!), I’m moving through both space and time. Compared with the speed of light – 670 million mph – I’m traversing space very slowly, at 1 or 2 mph when I’m strolling in the garden, 25 mph driving down a residential street, or 300 mph jetting through the sky. But guess what? I’m traveling through the dimension of time very fast. At the speed of light, in fact! Of course, so is everything and everyone around me. So I don’t notice my speed!

Wow! I’d like to see Greene explore the ramifications more thoroughly, but he’s a man on a mission with a lot of conceptual ground to cover. His purpose is not to dance in Einstein’s preserve, but to connect superstring theory to it. He continues through the history of physics and into the paradox arising between the rules governing the macrocosm and those governing the microcosm. When physicists want to understand black holes or the moment of the big bang, they cannot, because these conditions require both general relativity and quantum mechanics. Which do not mix! Superstring theory proposes a solution for the paradox.

Superstrings Calm the Quantum Foam

When we think about the smallest particles that make up the physical universe – electrons and quarks – we consider them to be points that have no height or width or depth. They are dimensionless.

This way of thinking causes problems.warped and tattered grid representing quantum spacetime

It means we must deal with quantum tunneling. At a sufficiently small size, many of the usual rules of the universe no longer pertain. Gravity? Nope. Cause and effect? Gone. Knowing where and when? Farewell certainty.

Envisioning the smallest particles as strings rather than dimensionless points solves these problems in two ways.

First, the strings of superstring theory have length. They are loops of about the Planck length. “What is the Planck length?” you ask. It is very small: a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. Greene gives us an analogy: if one atom were the size of the entire known universe, the Planck length would be the height of an average tree!

Very small, indeed, but NOT zero. Which means that we cannot probe physical reality below a certain size. Below the Planck length, in fact. Because nothing is smaller than that. In a sense it doesn’t exist.

And the quantum foam, where the rules of the universe go awry, exists mathematically only at scales smaller than the Planck length. But if we know the fundamental blocks of matter – strings – are too big to fit into the mathematical quantum foam, then all matter remains within a spacetime where the usual rules apply.

That is one way of looking at the issue. Superstring theory also gives us a second way.

In the Grandstands for an Event

Consider two particles traveling at high speed that collide, say an electron and a positron (an electron’s antimatter counterpart).

The particles collide and are annihilated, releasing energy as a photon. The photon travels some while and then releases it energy, transforming into two particles that go their separate ways.

an electron and a positron collideA physicist’s diagram of the event would like like this.

 

And here’s the difficulty: Einstein’s relativity principles state that different observers would not agree about exactly when and where the two particles collided. When considering point particles, that truth seems impossible.

Which is it?

This?an electron and a positron collide

 

Or this?an electron and a positron collide with different details

 

How can it be both?

 

Now consider how it looks if the particles are strings.diagram of 2 strings colliding

 

One person might see the collision like this, at a certain time and place.an observer sees the collision at one place and time

 

While another might see it like this, at a different time and place.another observer sees the collision at a different place and time

 

No paradox at all. The quantum foam (which is paradox) has smoothed out.

Greene goes on to discuss the further wonders of superstring theory: Calabi-Yau spaces and their transformations, M-theory, and the striking similarity between black holes and strings. It’s an incredible romp through the foundations of physical reality. Greene leaps from marvel to marvel, ending with the tantalizing possibility that superstring theory might allow us humans to graze the ultimate why.

I’ll be re-reading The Elegant Universe every few years . . . when my brain is ready to stretch and work!

The Elegant Universe at Amazon

The Elegant Universe at B&N

The Elegant Universe as an ebook at Kobo

For more cool science trivia, see:
Sol
Water
Anatomy of a Pitch

 

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Grass Green

cover of the book Pasture PerfectJo Robinson’s Pasture Perfect is an accessible, entertaining introduction to the concepts underpinning “grassfarming.” She starts with an amusing anecdote from her first talk given in front of 500 ranchers. At the close of her presentation, before the questions, she announced that she’d put together a little book titled Why Grassfed Is Best! (the precursor to Pasture Perfect). The auditorium emptied rapidly. She carried on, answering questions gamely, and wondering. Did her audience want to be first in line at the buffet dinner? Nope.

There’d been a stampede on the table where her little book was stacked for sale. Literally. Impatient with a line of 50-plus, ranchers began grabbing books, tossing their money down, making their own change. They were that eager for her information. And she’d not brought enough books!

Ms. Robinson takes us on a tour of a pasture-based farm. The air smells of grass and green. A ring of habitat for wildlife encircles the fields. The grass is lush and mixed with clover, alfalfa, and wild plants. The cattle are peaceful, moving slowly within their generous enclosure. Chickens share the paddock. It’s a pleasant spot, nourishing to the animals, welcoming to humans.

Then the author gets down to the nitty gritty: the health benefits of grass-fed meats.

Less fat. Animals eating grain get fat. Grass-fed meat has the same amount of fat as wild game or chicken breast without skin.

Fewer calories. If you eat a 6-ounce beef loin from a grass-fed cow, you’ll consume 92 fewer calories than if you eat one from a feedlot cow. That adds up over time.

More omega-3’s. People low on omega-3’s are more vulnerable to cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, and dementia. Grass-fed meats have 2 to 10 times more omega-3’s than feedlot meats.

Omega-3’s and omega-6’s in balance. Both these fatty acids are essential, but we need the right blend. Omega-6’s encourage blood to clot. Omega-3’s cause it to flow easily and smoothly. What’s the right ratio of 6’s to 3’s? There’s some debate about it. Probably no more than 4:1, possibly as low as 1:1. Grass-fed beef has ratios between 1:1 and 3:1. Feedlot beef ranges from 5:1 to 14:1. ‘Nuff said!

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). The research is preliminary, but CLA may help us resist cancer and heart disease. Grass-fed ruminants have 2 to 5 times as much CLA in their meat as feedlot ruminants.

Vitamin E. It’s an important anti-oxidant, protecting us from free radicals, boosting immunity, preventing heart disease. Grass-fed beef has 3 to 6 times more than feedlot beef.

Carotenoids. Fresh pasture provides hundreds of times more of these anti-oxidants than does feedlot mush, with the result that beta carotene and other carotenoids show up in quantity in grass-fed meat. The benefits of eating carotenoids include lower risk of cataracts and macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness).

Ms. Robinson also gives us the scoop on milk and eggs.

The milk from grazing cows has 5 times the CLA of conventionally fed dairy cows. The ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s is 1:1. The levels of beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E are all much higher.

The eggs from pasture-raised chickens (who eat grass, wild greens, and insects) show similar benefits. A ratio of 6’s to 3’s of 1:1, instead of 20:1. More vitamin A. But you don’t need a chemistry set to analyze the health of an egg. Conventional eggs have lemony pale yolks, while those from pastured hens show a deep, orangey yellow.

Best of all: pastured meat, milk, and eggs just taste better. The New York Times food editors reported free-range poultry as “flavorful and juicy” and that it “had a tender but meaty texture.”

Corby Krummer in The Atlantic Monthly said, “Grass-fed beef tastes better than corn-fed beef; meatier, purer, far less fatty.”

And Sam Guigino in Wine Spectator declares a grass-based strip steak “delicious, rich and full-flavored.”

The last chapter in Pasture Perfect tells us how and where to acquire these healthy and delicious pasture-raised foods. And 60 pages of recipes cap things off.

This was a life-changer for me. The nutritional differences between feedlot meat and grass-fed meat are not trivial. Good health versus poor may well lie in the balance. I had already connected with a local dairy farmer. I wanted nourishing milk for my 2-year-old twins! Now it was time to locate healthy meat and healthy eggs.

I’m lucky, because Virginia has a long tradition of family farms. My region is a focal point for the growing movement toward local food. Once I opened my eyes, there were dozens of neighboring farms that could supply my table. Like some of the people quoted in Pasture Perfect, I’m a bit spoiled now. Conventionally raised just doesn’t taste right!

Pasture Perfect at Amazon

Pasture Perfect at B&N

For more about nutrition, see:
Test first, then conclude!
Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!

For more on green living, see:
Permaculture Gardening
Running Mushrooms
Going Up in Smoke?

 

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Great Soap & Etcetera Quest

hieroglyph of amcient EgyptQueens of ancient Egypt outlined their eyes with kohl made from sulfide of antimony. Roman matrons rouged their cheeks with cinnabar, red mercury. Elizabethan nobles painted their faces with white lead. Victorian women swallowed arsenic to improve their complexions and drops of belladonna to dilate their eyes.

Learning these facts as a child, I developed considerable scorn for cultures of the past and their use of poisonous substances in the quest for personal beauty and hygiene. “Of course, they didn’t know any better,” I reminded myself.

Who would have dreamed that my attitude would reverse itself? At least the kohl worn by all the Egyptians who were not queens – made with lead sulfide, instead of antimony – actually protected them from eye infections. While modern concoctions . . . are not nearly so safe as we imagine. And we do know better!

Where did my change of attitude start? Strangely, with the flap about bisphenol A. My children were very young at the time, and we had plastics galore in our household. Little ones drop so many things. Surely plastic was safer than risking tender feet cut by broken glass. Well, it wasn’t; not if the plastic contained BPA, or maybe even if it didn’t. I read up on plastic and discovered that the reason it flexes the way it does is because each molecule of plastic physically slides past the others. And in the sliding process, some of the molecules are shed like skin flakes. When we eat foods stored in plastic, we eat a little of the plastic along with the food. Hmm.

I replaced all the plastic juice glasses with glass mugs. (The handles would help small fingers keep a grip.) Our tupperware and rubbermaid received the ax likewise. Canning jars and a few Pyrex containers worked just fine for storing cheese, homemade yogurt, and leftovers. Bed, Bath & Beyond even carried some inexpensive glass pitchers (with covers) for tea and milk. Good. We were set.

Except then I got to wondering . . . what else do I take for granted as safe when it isn’t? What about soap and shampoo and chapstick?

My first forays into research turned up cause for concern, but not much solid information. I decided to try the “organic” products carried by the local health food store. That was a disaster. The soap dried my skin and irritated it. The lotions were no better at moisturizing those dry hands than were conventional ones – that is, no good. And the shampoos resulted in a scalp that actually bled. Hmm again.

cover image of book about the dangers of conventional toiletriesI returned to conventional products, while I did more thinking. Not much in the way of solutions came to me . . . but, eventually, I stumbled upon a little lilac-colored book: Dying to Look Good by Christine Hoza Farlow. It was still thinner on specific solutions than I wanted, but it sure gave me motivation to try again. My conventional soaps, shampoos, and lip balm were chemical cocktails of carcinogens. And the health food store versions were often little better. They just used a different chemical cocktail!

Besides providing motivation, the book also led me to the Environmental Working Group and their Skin Deep cosmetics database. I was skeptical at first. I’d already been burned by the health food stores. Would this be any better?

It was.

The database lists every single ingredient in each product it includes, and it includes a lot of products, some with ingredient lists so simple that the words are all in English, utterly bare of incomprehensible chemical terms. Those were the products I decided to try.

And I got lucky.

photo of Terressentials hair washTerressentials’ hair wash, made with bentonite clay, was a beautiful thing for my hair and scalp. I’ve always had a twitchy scalp, prone to take offense at the slightest slight and throw out a patch of eczema. Apparently, the vast majority of shampoos – conventional and alternative – have ingredients that were causing my eczema. My longtime favorite also had ingredients that relieved it. But that’s crazy! To have irritant and remedy bundled together. My scalp has been calm over the last two years, ever since I slathered it in coconut oil (to soothe the damage done by the earlier experiments) and adopted the clay hair wash. (It’s not soap, and it doesn’t foam, but it does clean.)

photo of Bubble & Bee lip balmsTerressentials’ lip balm was another success, although it gets a little melty in the summer. But Bubble & Bee’s lip balm tends to be too stiffly solid in the winter. So I use both, the stiff one in hot weather, the melty one in cold.

photo of Bubble & Bee's body butterBubble & Bee’s body butter became the first lotion to ever have a lasting effect on dry scaliness of my feet (sorry for the TMI), and it’s pretty nice on hands, elbows, and knees too. Soft, properly moist skin is the result.

photo of African alata soap by SheAyurvedicsPure castile soap from the Blue Ridge Soap Shed doesn’t undo all the good work of that body butter. And, hey, it’s local too! It’s become my husband’s favorite soap, but I prefer something even more moisturizing: African Alata soap by SheAyurvedics. They’re both good. (ETA 2015: SheAyurvedics appears to have gone out of business, alas.)

photo of Bubble & Bee deodorantI’d had adventures with deodorants and anti-perspirants several decades ago and was leery of re-opening that can of worms. But my success with all the other toiletries, and especially with shampoo (the most unpleasant of all my cosmetic adventures) gave me courage to try again. I ordered up Bubble & Bee’s lemongrass deodorant. That proved a little too lemony for my taste, but it certainly did a fine job without irritating my skin. My husband had decided on their super pit putty, and we ended by swapping. He liked mine better, I liked his. Just recently I decided to branch out a little and purchased some lime geranium. Now my only difficulty is that I can’t decide which I like best. Both smell so nice! It’s a good problem to have.

Two toiletries still remain begging solutions.

I hadn’t used soap on my face for years, but the gentle cleanser resting beside the bathroom sink contained questionable ingredients. My problem: nearly all the alternatives have actual soap in them. And even a mild soap is too strong for my face. The one soap-free alternative I could find also has a questionable ingredient in it: grapefruit seed extract. The extract itself is harmless, but unless it is supplied by Nutribiotics, it may be contaminated by triclosan and methyl paraben or benzethonium chloride (all big baddies).

Since the main ingredient of my one alternative was vegetable glycerin, I decided to buy that one ingredient straight up and try it. I’m finding it acceptable, but still not quite right. I’ll probably start the quest again at some point. Just not yet!

Toothpaste is my other wild child. I’m currently using one of the SLS-free Tom’s of Maine formulations, but I’m not keen on its plastic container! I’ve tried homemade: arrowroot powder mixed with a few drops of food grade mint extract. That actually was very satisfactory, but messy. I may go back to it, now that my children are older. They can handle messy these days!

So why am I telling you all these rather personal details? (Too much information, with a vengeance!) Mainly because I really wanted to find a blog post just like this 3 years ago when I embarked on my great toiletries quest. I would have been spared a bleeding scalp and a lot of aggravation. Since I didn’t find this blog post (paradoxical time travel, anyone?), I’m creating it in the hope of sparing you irritation and aggravation! Luck!

UPDATE April 2015: I discovered a mild facial cleanser that works for me – Nourish Organic Moisturizing Cream Hand Wash – and blogged about it here. I’m currently using JASON toothpaste. The tube is made of plastic (alas), but I feel confidant of the ingredients in the paste.

Dying to Look Good at Amazon

Dying to Look Good at B&N

Hair Wash at Terressentials

Lip Balm at Terressentials

Lip Balm at Bubble&Bee

Body Butter at Bubble&Bee

Deodorant at Bubble&Bee

Castile Soap at the Blue Ridge Soap Shed

For more on green living, see:
Bandanna Gift Wrap
Waste-Free Lunch
Green Housekeeping

 

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