Lost Skills

A lot of the things I post here are about farming, more or less. Horticulture, agriculture, permaculture.. growing food (and fibre, and animal fodder). Which reflects the fact that the production of our base necessities is really important. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places basic physiological needs at the bottom for a reason, after all – they underpin everything else.

But growing ingredients isn’t the only part of that picture which is important. Over the last year or two, I’ve been looking at various sort of ‘old fashioned’ skills, mostly just because I’m interested and I’m that sort of nerd. I mean, did I learn to make soap from scratch in case of some sort of actual collapse scenario (of civilisation as a whole or just of supply chains and the Capitalist economic model we all rely on even if we acknowledge how harmful it is to most people)? No.

I learned because chemistry is fun, and I like knowing things. But if things go badly, well, I do know how to make soap.

Cooking is the same, and baking – my sourdough starter is alive, 4 years on, and I bake bread (or some bread-adjacent baked good) weekly – and sewing, and knitting, and crochet, and calligraphy, and making ink and paper for the calligraphy, and herbal remedies..

(Did you know that large percentages of the world’s population still rely on herbal remedies when they’re ill or injured, because they can’t afford modern medical care?? Really, in 2022, there are people who can’t afford medicine. And I, in my privileged ivory tower, live in a country where basic medical care is free. The injustice is horrifying, and yet, I’m grateful to be on the good side of it, and I feel guilty about that at the same time).

In fact, there are a whole bunch of neglected skills that are essential for non-industrialised or even semi-industrialised human societies to function. So this is a new series of posts, starting here, about these ‘lost skills’. Most of them aren’t lost as such, just not widely known or taught, but still.

Herbal Remedies

I’m starting with herbal rememdies because I love my herb garden, but also I actually know very little about the topic beyond the culinary uses of herbs. What I do know is that the basics of herbal rememdies come down to knowing (a) about the different ways to infuse medicinal or therapeutic herbs into something that can be used to rememdy an illness or injury, and (b) which herbs to use, and what they do.

I am not an herbalist, nor a medical professional, and so I can’t actually advise anyone on which herbs to use for what beyond a few well-known ones: chamomile is considered good for relaxation and sleep, lavender for calm and focus, and ginger assists digestion and calms the digestive system. Tea tree (Melaleuca spp.) and lavender oils can be used as antiseptic, and citrus oils are used for household cleaning. But there are various sources of information online (such as this one, and this one) that list the known properties of various herbs. Use your discretion, and apply the information at your own risk.

The techniques, on the other hand, are fairly straightforward and useful for homemade cosmetics as well as things like calming teas and cough syrups. Many of the ideas should be familiar from cooking, one way or another. These are the basic types of remedies:

  • Infusion – like a tea, herbs or flowers are steeped in hot water for 3 – 20 minutes (or in cool water for 4 – 8 hours).
  • Decoction – for woodier herbs, rather than simply steeping in hot water, the herbs are simmered for 20 min to an hour to draw out the therapeutic benefits of the herb.
  • Tincture – herbs or flowers (or fruit) are steeped in alcohol instead of water, and are generally left to infuse in a dark place for at least 8 hours and up to 3 months. Usually made with white spirits (vodka or similar), but tinctures can also be made with wine or cider.
  • Aceta (aka Vinegar Extract)- similar to a tincture or infusion, an aceta (or vinegar extract) is made using vinegar instead of water or alcohol. The Nerdy Farm Wife blog has a great post about medicinal vinegars here.
  • Infused oil – In the same way that water, alcohol, or vinegar can be used to draw out the useful properties of a herb or flower, so can vegetable oil. Generally a mild carrier oil is used, such as sunflower, olive, or almond oil, but any edible vegetable oil can be used.
  • Infused honey – same deal, using honey instead of another base. Electuaries are ground or powdered herbs mixed into honey to preserve them.
  • Herbal syrup – Decoctions can be mixed with sugar or honey to make a herbal syrup (e.g. a ginger and lemon syrup for a sore throat, or a fig syrup to treat mild constipation). An oxymel is a vinegar extract mixed with honey to make a syrup, and infused honey can be used on its own or diluted with water or an infusion or decoction as a herbal syrup. An elixir is a tiuncture mixed with honey (infused or otherwise) in a 50/50 ratio to form a herbal syrup.
  • Compress – a cloth soaked in strong herbal tea that is applied to the skin to relieve soreness or inflammation associated with sore muscles, bumps, bruises, scrapes or other areas of concern.
  • Poultice – a soft, moist mass of plant matter applied to the body to help with the same issues related to soreness and inflammation listed above (bumps, bruises, scrapes, etc.).
  • Ointment or Salve – contains fats or oils, thickened and emulsified with wax. For topical (external) use; sometimes used on wounds. Balms (lip balms, lotion bars, massage balms, exfoliant balms) are all examples of salves & ointments.
  • Linament – a combination of a tincture or plain alcohol with oil, shaken to emulsify the oil in the water. Linaments are generally for topical (external) use, often in combination with a poultice or bandage, but most salad dressings are also (technically) linaments, and they can be very beneficial to the digestive tract.
  • Lotion – a combination of oil, water (or infusion), and an emusifying agent such as borax, lecithin, or various gums; either oil emulsified in water, or water emulsified in oil (a heavier lotion). Only for topical (external) use.

If you’d like more detail, I recommend the following posts: