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Day to Day
In this section we focus on the daily needs, like tooth brushing and face washing, and also little emergencies that might pop up at any time, like a scraped knee or sore throat. Unlike the big projects that come along later in this book, these projects are perishables and consumables, things you whip up as you need them, using ingredients found in your pantry or backyard. Warning: These are gateway projects that may addict you to a more homegrown lifestyle.
Olive Oil Lamps
PREPARATION: 5 min
Since this book is all about rethinking your relationship to the common products and systems in your home, we thought it would be appropriate to start off with a project that brings new light to the household.
Oil lamps are one of the most elemental forms of lighting. The Romans used clay lamps filled with olive oil. The Inuit used soapstone dishes of seal oil. Scottish fishermen used little tin lamps filled with fish oil. Lamps fueled with ghee are still used to light temples in India. Oil lamps are inexpensive, nontoxic alternatives to paraffin candles and petroleum-fueled lamps. But the true beauty of these lamps is their flexibility and simplicity. They can be improvised in a few seconds with items found around the house (which is handy in a power outage) but can also be made into beautiful objects to grace your dinner table.
Oil lamps work best when the wick is submerged in oil, there's lots of airflow, and--this is most important--the flame sits just above the oil pool. If the flame is too far away from the fuel, it won't burn long. If you look at ancient lamps in museums, you'll see that they share a common design that facilitates these principles. They are usually palm size and always shallow. In most, the flame is not placed centrally but instead burns at the rim of the container, where the wick rests on an sloped edge, against a lip, or in a spout of some sort.
A SHALLOW VESSEL. The first lamps were probably made of large scallop, clam, or oyster shells, and these still make pretty lamps. A little china saucer works well. So does a jar lid, but you'll want to pull out a little V-shape lip in the edge of the lid with pliers so the wick has a place to rest. We'll also show you a lidded variation made out of a round mint tin that burns from the center. It works because it has big holes punched in the lid for airflow.
A WICK. This can be made of a bit of kitchen twine, a shoelace, a string tie from an old blouse, or a thin strip of T-shirt. Just make sure it's 100 percent natural fiber. In olden times, they used the piths of reeds or twisted moss. The broader the wick, the bigger and brighter the flame. The wick doesn't have to be long because it doesn't burn down much.
THE FUEL. We recommend olive oil, though you're welcome to experiment with other fats. Olive oil of any grade burns slowly, without smoke or odor. If you have a bottle of olive oil that has gone rancid, this is a great use for it.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
A LAMP MADE OF A DISH OR A SHELL
Fill your shell or dish with oil and lay the wick across the bottom, arranging the end of the wick so it pokes off the side about 1/2 inch out of the oil. For more light, use two wicks. Give the oil a couple of minutes to fully saturate the wick, then light the lamp. Tilt the vessel, if necessary, to make sure the oil is pooling at the base of the flame. Nesting one saucer or shell inside another facilitates this sort of tilting and can help to stabilize a tippy shell. Refill whenever you notice the distance growing between the oil and the flame. Time between refills varies by shell depth and whether you have multiple wicks, but a teaspoon of oil burns for about an hour. A good-size shell should see you through a dinner party.
Of course you'd never leave a flame unattended, but what if your lamp gets knocked over? Olive oil is not very volatile, so the spilled oil will not ignite into a blazing inferno. However, the wick may continue to burn if it isn't doused in the accident.
A LAMP MADE OUT OF A CANDY TIN
The shallow shape of a candy or mint tin is ideal for making an oil lamp. The lid is a nice addition, because it makes spills less likely. Punch a hole in the center of the tin's lid for the wick. Make the first puncture with the tip of a knife blade, then widen the hole using a screwdriver. Work from the top of the lid so that the ragged edge is hidden. The hole should be broad enough that the wick is not pinched or constricted. To allow sufficient oxygen flow, you will need to punch a second, smaller hole off to one side to help draw air. Use a broad, stiff wick for this sort of lamp. A shoelace or string tie would be ideal. Poke one end through the central hole and coil the rest in the bottom of the tin. Fill the tin with oil and allow the wick to saturate a few minutes before lighting.
Thinking around the Toothbrush
PREPARATION: 5 min
A plastic brush with nylon bristles is considered an indispensable part of dental hygiene, but what did people use before its invention? What is used today in parts of the world where the toothbrush hasn't been adopted?
Modern toothbrushes date their popularity to 1938, when quick-drying nylon bristles were invented. Prior to that, brushes were made with animal bristles, which tended to shed and mold, and which probably didn't taste great, either. The combination of nylon bristles and plastic handles made for a hygienic, practical brush--but at a cost. Those brushes have immortal life spans in landfills, and while eco-friendly recycled handles and replaceable heads are available, they don't challenge the dominant paradigm that the toothbrush is a plastic, disposable item.
Alternatives exist. You might adopt them because you're trying to reduce the plastic waste in your household, or you might just keep them in mind in case a zombie apocalypse cuts you off from your usual toothbrush supply. If nothing else, they're convenient for camping trips. Try one or two of these techniques in conjunction with ordinary brushing. Your brushes will last longer, and over time you might find you don't miss your brush.
A tooth cloth cleans the teeth, and your finger massages the gums nicely along the way, which is something dentists are always trying to get us to do better.
Take a 5-inch square of slightly textured fabric, like linen or oxford cloth. (You can make a mountain of these squares with a yard of inexpensive fabric or old, clean shirts. Use pinking shears to cut them out and you can get away with not hemming them.)
Wrap a square around your forefinger and use it to rub your teeth clean. You can use a dentifrice, if you wish, by dampening the cloth first and then adding toothpaste or tooth powder. The cloth doesn't clean between the teeth, true; but that's why we floss. Wash and reuse the cloths.
This strongly aromatic and antiseptic herb will leave your mouth fresh, and the texture of the leaves cleans teeth well. If you grow sage, it's worth keeping a few fresh sprigs in a vase in the bathroom. When it's time to brush, just rub a leaf over your teeth and gums, using as many leaves as it takes--two to four in most cases.
How to Choose a Twig
How do you find a good chew-stick tree in your neighborhood or yard? In every region, certain trees have been identified through traditional use as being valuable for this purpose. These trees will contain antibacterial or otherwise mouth-friendly agents, making them ideal for dental use. Question local wild food experts and search history texts for leads on interesting plants in your area. Don't use just any twig. The majority of them will be inert--meaning not particularly useful-while other trees are poisonous, such as oleander, yew, holly, and (of course) poison oak and poison sumac. You'd be in for a world of hurt if you chewed on their branches. Always be certain of your plant identifications.
Harvest twigs respectfully, taking only a bit at a time from any one tree and using pruning shears or a sharp knife to make a clean cut rather than breaking branches off with your hands. Here are a few common North American trees you might start with:
FLOWERING DOGWOOD (Cornus florida), found mostly east of the Mississippi. Its spectacular floral displays make this a popular ornamental tree, easy to find in both city and suburb. Gunn's Domestic Medicine: or Poor Man's Friend, in the Hours of Affliction, Pain, and Sickness, by John C. Gunn (1835), says the twigs of young dogwood are "tooth-brushes of nature's presenting, infinitely better than those made of hog's bristles." The dogwood was used as a "chaw stick" throughout the Ozarks, where the European settlers probably learned of its efficacy from the local indigenous people.
BIRCH, especially Betula lenta, known as black birch, cherry birch, and sweet birch. It gives off a distinct wintergreen aroma when you scratch the bark, so you'll know you've found the right tree. This twig makes a pleasant, minty-tasting toothbrush. Note that Betula lenta has smooth, gray bark instead of the white bark we typically associate with trees in the birch family.
OAK (Quercus, any type). This is one tree that most of us can identify with ease, if only by the acorns lying on the ground beneath it. Oaks are especially rich in tannic acid, which has powerful astringent and antibacterial properties. Oak preparations have long been associated with the treatment of bleeding gums and ulcers of the mouth.
SWEET GUM (Liquidambar styraciflua). Another popular ornamental tree, sweet gum is easily identified by its brilliant fall colors and starlike fruit-- not an edible fruit, but a gumball-size seedpod covered in sharp spikes, making it the bane of many a lawn owner. Sweet gum twigs are slightly astringent/tannic but basically flavorless.
OTHER TREES that have been used for chew sticks include spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Root-beer-flavored sassafras has a bad rap for being poisonous, but that toxicity occurs in the context of ingesting high doses of commercial extracts. An occasional nibble at a sassafras twig won't hurt you.
LICORICE STICKS, the dried roots of the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra), are a mail-order alternative for those of you who don't want to go around surreptitiously pruning your neighbors' trees. Licorice roots are sweet and taste intensely of licorice--as you might expect. They draw out a lot of saliva, especially when you first start chewing, and so aren't good for brushing while reading. On the upside, that juice freshens the breath; helps digestion; and eases canker sores, coughs, and sore throats. Excessive licorice intake might cause hypertension in some individuals, so if you already have high blood pressure, proceed with caution. Licorice sticks are sold processed and flavored, which makes them more expensive than twigs from nearby trees, but you can purchase unprocessed sticks from a bulk herb supplier on the cheap.
TWIGS OR CHEW STICKS
Toothbrush twigs or chew sticks were used in the West well into the 20th century and are used to this day for teeth cleaning in many parts of the world.
Chew sticks are slender, fresh twigs, measuring approximately 1/4 to 1/3 inch in diameter and 6 inches in length. Choose them from an appropriate tree; see "How to Choose a Twig" on the opposite page. If twigs are too dry to chew into a brush form, soak them overnight. Otherwise, you don't have to prewash or prepare the twigs in any way before use.
Peel back the bark on one end by about 1/4 inch, using your fingernail or a paring knife. Chomp the peeled part between your molars to break up the fibers, which creates a soft, blunt little brush. While the cleaning action of an ordinary toothbrush is a generalized sweep from side to side, the movement of the twig is more specific and refined, the action a gentle up and down. It makes you aware of the shape and edges of each tooth. The more slender the twig, the tighter the control.
Chew sticks are not usually used with dentifrice (though you could if you want). There are other ways to freshen breath, as explored in Project 4. Not using toothpaste means you are not tied to the sink while brushing--you can brush while reading or watching TV. This leads to more thorough brushing. The same twig can be trimmed and reused. On top of that, they are free, locally sourced, and perfectly biodegradable. What's not to love?
Homemade Tooth Powder
PREPARATION: 2 min
Powders of chalk, charcoal, salt, and various ground medicinal barks and herbs are the oldest dentifrices. More recently, baking soda has become a sort of "people's toothpaste." Many of our grandparents used it during the Great Depression, and its simplicity and low cost make it a fantastic alternative to artificially sweet, chemical-loaded commercial toothpastes.
Baking soda is primarily a deodorizer and a mild abrasive. It is less abrasive than salt and certainly less abrasive than the silica (sand) found in many whitening brands of toothpaste. Moreover, baking soda's abrasive qualities break down quickly when it comes in contact with water or saliva. The taste is undeniably salty, but it leaves your mouth clean and fresh, with no lingering aftertaste. Just be sure to rinse well after use.
. Small jar with lid (A baby food jar works well.) . Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), approximately 1/4 cup . Peppermint essential oil (or anise essential oil)
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Fill the jar with baking soda. Flavor it by adding a few drops of essential oil, then shake to distribute the oil. Let your nose be your guide as to exactly how much oil to use, but start off by trying 10 drops per 1/4 cup of soda.
To use, wet your toothbrush (or other brushing implement) and dip it in the jar. If you are especially concerned about your breath, add 1 single drop of peppermint essential oil to the bristles of your brush before you begin. Brush as usual, and rinse well.
Note: A small jar is ideal because the essential oils fade over time, so it's best to mix the powder in small batches. It's also more hygienic, since you'll be dipping your brush in the jar. It's doubtful that nasty bugs can live in that saline environment, but you should clean the jar before refilling it.
VARIATION: Instead of using essential oil for flavor, mix 1 part baking soda with 1 part dried and powdered sage leaves. Sage is especially good for troubled gums.
A Minimalist Mouthwash
PREPARATION: 5 min