Saturday, February 27, 2010

Comfort in Comfrey

Returning from an afternoon walk, I spotted my neighbor, Mike Braal, tossing feed to the birds. His bag contained a coarsely ground suet compliments of one of the local grocery stores. Mike has always fed the birds and because of it I think they call his place home. He’s a naturalist at heart and in part, by profession. He’s a winter ski and snowshoe guide at a nearby guest ranch and in the summer he’s the captain of his own eco-tourism boat off the coast of southern Alaska. Several years ago we joined him for a week of touring around Gustavus and Glacial Bay National Park, Alaska. We watched grizzly hunt for salmon, cooked up halibut and crab for dinner, and enjoyed 500 year old glacial ice in our water glasses at night.

As we waved to one another, Mike asks, “Where are your snowshoes?”

I answer backed, “I broke my toe. I can’t go out in my boots, but my running shoes seem to work for at least a walk.”

In a thoughtful voice he asked, “Have you ever tried comfrey?”

“No, I haven't.”

He told me an old friend, who’s a massage therapist, recommended it to her clients who had broken bones, sprains, and bruises. He said, “Just make up a pot of comfrey tea and soak your foot in it. I usually collect it from the old garden out back. I’m sure you’ve seen it around here in the summer.”

I admit my lack of knowledge about comfrey and say, “I’ll look for it next summer. But I’m going to town tomorrow. Maybe I can find some at Bamboo Market(a natural health food store).”

Comfrey is a perennial herb with large broad hairy leaves and small bell shaped flowers ranging in color from white to pink to purple. The plant is native to Europe and parts of Asia and has been cultivated since 400 B.C. Its common name is “knitbone,” derived from one of its most common uses as a poultice to treat burns, bruises, swelling, and broken bones. Comfrey is considered toxic to the liver if taken orally as a supplement and has been banned for that purpose in the United States since 2001.

After catching up with the rest of our mid-winter lives, I headed on home. No sooner had I taken my shoes off than Griz started barking. I opened the door to find Mike driving up. Rolling down his window he said, “I checked to see what I had and I have plenty.”

I reached out to take a gallon jar filled two-thirds full of dried comfrey leaves.
“How many should I use? Are you sure you have enough?”

“I’ve got plenty at home. Go ahead and use it all. Just crush some of it up and pour hot water over it.”

After dinner I made Mike’s comfrey tea and enjoyed soaking my broken toe.

I never know what I’ll discover when I meet Mike on the road. Sometimes a critique of politics, sometimes an invitation to ski at the guest ranch where he works, or sometimes Mike’s making a delivery of canned salmon he caught and prepared on his boat in Alaska. In our meeting I enjoy our knowing one another for over twenty-five years: the naturalist, the guide, the fisherman, and today my herbalist offering the comfort of his summer harvest of comfrey.

To learn more about Mike’s charter tours in Alaska go to:

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part III - Here

This morning Emma, Griz, and I headed out for a brisk run. The thermometer read 18 degrees. Emma flew down the driveway after Griz and just as quickly he headed for the nearest snow bank in order to escape Emma’s intense terrier style play. It’s the dance that begins our journey down the road.

The traffic on our county road has increased over the years. So, when a car or truck approaches, I shout out, “Here, Emma, here Griz.” They usually trot toward me, turn, sit, and wait while the vehicle passes by. But sometimes Emma heads off down the side of the road on the trail of a scent. When this happens it’s difficult for Emma to comply. Something more powerful is calling her attention. But I insist that she comply and order returns to our small traveling pack.

I fondly remember teaching Emma to come, to respond to the command “here.” At six months I signed Emma up for doggie obedience school with a local instructor, Valerie, who was known for her intuitive understanding of dogs. The night we learned to ask our dogs to come to us, Valerie directed us to walk with our dogs all the while asking that they keep their eyes on us: mirroring our movements, turning when we turned, stopping when we stopped, and moving out when we began again. If they did not, a little pull on the leash and the command of “here” would right the ship.

However, because Boston’s like Emma are known for their independence and distractibility, Valerie insisted that Emma and I also work with a clicker, a small device you squeeze, making the sound of a cricket, something akin to a small party favor I remember having as a child. Training with a clicker, clicking it the instant the dog responds correctly to your command, makes dogs like Emma pay better attention to the trainer instead of their own ideas about what to worry about or what to do next.

Now I not only had a leash, a dog, a clicker, and a treat to manage in my hands, I also had a sequence of tasks I had to order in my head correctly so I could lead Emma through them. Walk ahead, turn and click (the instant Emma complied correctly), treat; walk to the left, turn and click, treat; walk to the right, turn and click, treat; and so on. I fumbled, I lost the sequence and I miscued Emma enough times to erase any learning curve we may have begun to climb. With leashes, clickers, treats, dog at my feet, I felt irritated that I had begun this new project in which my sense of discomfort, clumsiness, and embarrassment weren’t exactly the feelings I’d anticipated when I’d dreamt of a cuddly, unconditional new companion.

As the sound of clickers, dog tags, and an occasionally growl and bark carried on until eight o’clock. I submitted to the task at hand, steeling myself to let go of the disquiet inside. It was as though Valerie had also said to me and the other owners, “Here, pay attention to me, pay attention to the task at hand.” Valerie’s direction contained my discomfort. In doing so I worked toward the same disciplined attention I was asking of Emma and it was there I found order and a quieting of my unease.

It occurred to me that this call to be present, whatever it is that contains and demands our attention, provides rich ground for growth. For example, choosing to be present within the demands and constraints of parenthood or life’s work or relationship requires that we face our comfort and discomfort, our competence and incompetence. If we respond to the call, we are offered the opportunity to grow and over time we discover in ourselves the responsible parent, the competent worker, or the committed partner in relationship.

Despite my discomfort and Emma’s distractibility and independence that night at doggie obedience school, we worked to respond to Valerie’s command of, “Here, pay attention.” And in doing so, Emma and I found the beginning of a reliable “here” in our growing list of training commands.
As Emma, Griz, and I made our way back to the ranch this morning, I called out to Emma, "Here!" pointing to the right side of the road. We were climbing a small rise where it's difficult to see oncoming traffic so I switch from the left side of the road to the right where there's better visibility. We do this every time as we return home and as soon as I say, "Here," Emma knows that she needs to switch sides of the road. Griz also follows suit dutifully moving to join us as we take on the rise.
If Emma could talk I think she would agree with me that we are grateful that one night in doggie obedience school Valerie insisted that we both pay attention and respond successfully to the simple command of "here," for we are now one happy and cooperative traveling pack on the open road.

A postscript: Valerie Appell passed away this past December after losing her battle with cancer. In addition to her career as a nurse, she was active in fostering the therapy dog program, Heeling Friends. After leaving Steamboat in 2007 she continued to work with hospitals and schools nurturing healing
relationships between dogs and people in need.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pete and Andy Compete at the Sun Circuit AQHA Show

One of the largest AQHA Horse Shows takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona in late January. Events include reining, western pleasure, reined cow horse, English riding events, and carriage driving. Top trainers from around the country gather to compete including Bob Avila, Randy Paul, Marci Ver Meer, Deb Cooper, Brent Naylor, Cory Cushing, and old-timers like Benny Guitron.

This year just getting to Arizona was no easy feat. Andy and his client left in winter weather from northwestern Colorado and ran into one of the largest winter storms to hit southeastern Utah and Arizona. Weather conditions ranged from blizzards, to flash flooding, tornadoes, and high winds. Completing what, under ordinary conditions would have been a 13 hour drive; they arrived a day later after having driven 22 hours. Thankfully, the travelers and the three horses they brought with them arrived safely and in good condition. Pete and I headed out a few days later and had an easy go of it crossing a striking mid-winter desert in northeastern Arizona, the red desert and sandstone highlighted by a stunning blanket of heavy snow.

Andy and Pete registered to compete in the reined cow horse event on Annabelle Playgun and Andy competed in the reining event with Cisco, whom a client had recently purchased in Texas and had earned a number of points as a cow horse. The reined cow horse event consists of two parts, each judged separately: they consist of a reining pattern and cow work. The reining patterns vary from class to class but all involve a change in gait, speed and direction; and spins in both directions. The cow work includes boxing a cow on the end of the arena to show control over the animal and then the horse and rider work the cow on the fence, usually at high speed, turning her twice, once to the left and once to the right. The final maneuver consists of turning the cow in the middle of the arena in two circles, one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise.

As the competition begins, you might think every horse and rider would enjoy scoring high points in every class they enter. The truth is that each trainer has specific training goals for each of their horses. Some may very well be the ones to score high and compete for the high point saddle while others have goals related directly to the horse’s particularly training progression.

Pete and Andy both had specific goals for Annabelle and Andy had goals important to his work with Cisco, whom he had ridden for just over a month. Andy had recently put Annabelle in a hackamore as part of her training progression from the snaffle bit to the hackamore to the bridle bit. While the hackamore gives her something new to think about she can easily realize that it’s more difficult for the rider to control her. During Pete’s first run, Annabelle responded well to the hackamore. He had one of the top scores in the reining and his cow work earned an average mark. However, in his second run on Annabelle, she realized she could exert more control and when it came to the cow work, she had an impulsive mind of her own. Pete had difficulty controlling her speed and her focus. As a result, when Andy rode Annabelle in the next class, he schooled her, which means he took her at a slow and even pace so she could not get out of control insisting she do the maneuvers properly in the show ring. While this impacts the scoring, it is an important training experience for any horse and many of the trainers use a class to school or prepare their horses for future events.

At the end of the week, Pete was pleased to have performed well on Annabelle in his first run and Andy was pleased that he and Cisco had two respectable runs out of three. Trainers like Andy also spend part of their week observing one another; asking questions about training particularly when they’ve reached a stumbling block with a horse; and visiting with those who love the very same process and satisfaction of creating a precise partnership with these powerful and athletic performance quarter horses.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Riggs Narrowly Survives Colic, continued

On the following Monday Dr. Bohannon put Riggs on three days of IV antibiotics to treat what Dr. Bohannon thought might be an abdominal abscess. In addition, he was given a levage treatment which involved flushing the abdominal cavity and then draining it to clean out any infection from the abscess. The Dr. Bohannon could also analyze the fluid from the drain to determine whether or not there was any infection or internal bleeding. If the fluid was clear and remained clear, Rigg’s prognosis became brighter.

Once he completed these procedures, Dr. Bohannon kept Riggs another four days for observation and continued IV antibiotic treatment. He then called Pete to let him know he thought Riggs could come home with follow-up treatment and stall rest. Stalled at Andy’s indoor training barn, Riggs was treated each day with antibiotics and stall rest.

Now, six weeks later, Pete brought Riggs back to the ranch last night. He will watch him carefully in the coming weeks for any changes in his appearance or behavior. Hopefully, Riggs has truly survived an unusual colic condition. And while we do not know the reason for the abscess, lab tests came back inconclusive; I know we will always be additionally concerned and vigilant about Rigg’s health and well-being.