Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Traditional Arabic Medicine

Women shopping at an herb and spice store,
Aleppo,Syria, 2007. Click on photos to enlarge.
Traditional Arabic Medicine (TAM) is far less well-known in the U.S. compared to other “traditional,” i.e., non-Western medical practices such as traditional Chinese medicine or traditional Indian (Ayurvedic or Unani) medicine. Per the World Health Organization, “Traditional medicine refers to health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant-, animal- and mineral-based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques, and exercises applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being.”

Much of the roots of Traditional Arabic Medicine stem from the Alexandrian conquests and the subsequent hundreds of years of rule by Greek colonists in the Hellenistic States, stretching from what is now Egypt to the western edges of what is now India. The medical works of Hippocrates and Galen laid the foundations for medical practice in the Middle East. Greek-derived medicine survived the Roman conquests and was later formalized by the translations of Greek texts into Arabic in the 8th century A.D. Major Ayurvedic texts were also being translated into Arabic at the same time, and Ayurvedic practices were melded into Arabic medicine

Advances in medicine during the Abbasid Caliphate (8th to 13th centuries) included the establishment of hospitals, surgical methods, medical encyclopedias, medical schools and the standardization of botanical preparations. The western reaches of the Islamic empire reached into what is now Spain, with centers of learning in Cordoba and Granada. Toward the end of the 12th century, translations from Arabic to Latin of such works as the Canon of Medicine and the Comprehensive Book on Medicine laid the foundation for the development of “Western” medicine in Europe.

Current use of TAM varies widely across the Middle East, and within countries by socio-economic status and education. Ethnobotanists have identified 200 to 300 plant-derived products in common use. The list includes: anise, black seed, cardamom, chamomile, cherry, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cress, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, flax, frankincense, galingale, ginger, Greek sage, henna, laurel, licorice, mastic, mint, mustard, nutmeg, olive, parsley, pepper, pimento, rosemary, saffron, senna, sumac, Syrian rue, turmeric and wormwood.

As an example of how one of these might show up as a modern dietary supplement ingredient, frankincense (Boswellia serrata) contains various boswellic acids, which can be concentrated into a Boswellia extract. Boswellic acids have been shown to inhibit the inflammation pathway. In clinical trials, Boswellia extracts have demonstrated promising effects in osteoarthritis, colitis and asthma.

In many cultures, traditional medicines include animal
parts in addition to plants. This shop has starfish and
turtle shells in addition to herbs, spices and food.
The 21st century future for TAM is not as strong as it is for traditional Indian or Chinese medicine. A 2006 visit to Damascus and Aleppo found herb-selling traditional Arab pharmacies in the souks, but in the suburbs there were cars double-parked in front of modern pharmacies where consumers raced in to buy glucosamine, ginkgo and other non-indigenous complementary and alternative medicines.

A survey of Arab practitioners in the Middle Eastern region provides evidence that TAM does not have this forward-looking momentum. Practitioners considered to be knowledgeable in their trade inherited the practice from their fathers or male relatives, or learned it as an apprentice. The survey's authors mentioned that the number of practitioners they were able to locate was fewer than reported in earlier surveys. There was limited exchange of information among healers, and no systematic instruction of the next generation of healers. The healers either sourced their herbs from the wild - limiting them to what grew locally - or purchased products from traditional Arab pharmacies. On average, each healer used only 22 botanical products in their practice - far fewer than the 200-300 that ethnobiologists had identified as still in common use. On the bright side, there are attempts to establish re­search/teaching centers, including gardens for medicinal plants.

To remain vibrant, any traditional medicine requires schools to continue to graduate practitioners, agreed upon definitions for botanical materials, stable sources of those plants and a population of consumers seeking traditional treatments. Given the current world dominance of “Western” medicine, advocates of traditional medicine may also try to apply evidence-based research methods to traditional practices. This typically involves identification of the active compounds in plant extracts, followed by evaluation through human studies. This approach can be conducted at regional universities. Or students from the region who have moved to other countries to complete their advanced education could conduct research there on treatments they were familiar with from childhood.

Black Seed (Nigella sativa) is one of the most commonly used botanical products throughout the Middle East. It is also an example of “Prophetic Medicine” - referring to health and disease statements found in the Holy Koran and in the Hadith - writings, sayings and traditions from Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam. An English translation of one statement: “There is healing in black seed for all ailments, except death.” Usage is oral consumption of the crushed seeds, sometimes mixed with foods (especially honey), or else oil extracted from the seeds. Traditional uses include treating  asthma, allergies, bronchitis, gastro-intestinal problems, to increase milk production in nursing mothers, and others. Placebo-controlled human studies suggest that Nigella extracts might lower blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting glucose.   

And because what's old is new again, local pharmacies carry dietary supplements containing ingredients such as chamomile, cinnamon, fenugreek, frankincense, garlic, ginger, turmeric...


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Salt-Cured Meat and Fish

Before refrigeration, before commercial development of the ice business, before canned goods, salting and/or drying, with or without smoke, were the major means of preserving meat. The idea was to make the food inhospitable to bacteria and mold, yet still edible. Hog killing time was in the fall. Yield included hams, bacon, sausage and a barrel of pork meat submerged in strong brine. What we call salt pork now is a small fraction of what went into a barrel back then. With careful planning the brined meat would last a family through the winter. In a novel set in colonial times, James Fenimore Cooper wrote: "I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel."

Late fall, after the first frosts, was hog killing time for a few reasons. Colder weather meant less of a problem with flies and risk of rot while the meat was being processed. Piglets from the spring's litter would have become hogs weighing 150 to 200 pounds. There was no reason to keep/feed hogs over the winter (except for the breeders, which reached an adult weight of 400 to 600 pounds, and ate 6,000 calories a day). Meat was packed in salt and let sit for weeks, with holes in the bottom of the basin for water to drip out. From here, some went into the smoke house for weeks of drying, while other cuts went into a barrel of brine. Either way, non-refrigerated storage was good for months and more. In Italy, air-dried Prosciutto hams are aged 14-30 months before going to market.

Salt beef was another food common to the era before refrigeration, especially aboard sailing ships, as barrels of this commodity would keep for months. Nowadays we are reduced to corned beef and pastrami, the key difference between the two being that the latter is dried and smoked in between the initial brining and the end-stage cooking. Much of the land in Ireland was given over to cattle for the British Navy and merchant fleets, leaving the native Irish to the cities, and potatoes. The Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, caused by a potato wasting disease, forced many to emigrate to the Americas, locally to work in factories.    

Salt cod. Click on photo to enlarge. (Internet download)
Salt cod is third example of a once common New England food, now less so. In Catholic neighborhoods, especially, markets would have these air-dried, salted, unrefrigerated fillets on display. The buyer would soak the cod in fresh water for at least 24 hours, changing the water several times, in order to rehydrate, and remove most of the salt. In Norway there used to be five different grades of salt cod: superior extra, superior, imperial, universal and popular. Top quality came from the fish being caught on a fishing line, bled while still alive, beheaded, gutted and immediately salted. This versus netted - which probably meant the fish was dead a while before being beheaded and gutted - then frozen on the ship, then thawed, salted and dried once ashore.

While all Catholics were eating salt cod during Lent, the local Finnish population had started eating lipeƤkala (lutefisk, i.e., 'lye fish') before Christmas. Same salt cod, but after the rehydrating water soak, soaked a couple of days in a strong lye solution, them more days of water soaking to remove most of the lye. First-timers describe is as either soapy tasting fish or fishy tasting soap. Either way, a strong odor and an acquired taste.     

'Pork barrel politics' is a metaphor for the appropriation of federal or state government spending for projects designed to bring money to a representative's home district. Construction, defense spending, and agricultural subsidies are the most commonly cited examples. A famous Massachusetts example was the Big Dig, a multi-billion dollar, federally funded, traffic improvement project shepherded through Congress by Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, Jr., then representing Boston and serving as Speaker of House of Representatives. Closer to home we have the Assabet River Rail Trail, primarily funded by the Federal Highway Administration from the federal fuel tax. Your (and other people's) tax dollars at work.

"Bottom of the barrel" has other origins. When wine is stored in barrels, solid materials composed of grape skin fragments, dead yeast cells, tartaric acid crystals and precipitating tannins (the last from the grapes and also the wood of the barrel) settle to the bottom and are referred to as dregs or lees. Modern-day bottled wines are filtered, so there is much less of this, and thus less need for decanters, but even then there can be some post-filtering precipitates. Back in the era of unfiltered wine, the well-off got the good stuff and the poorer class of people drank wine from the bottom of the barrel. Present day usage means something being of poor quality. There is a belief that beer drawn from a fermentation tank is progressively darker toward the bottom. Not true.   

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Maynard News, 1917

One hundred years ago the local weekly newspapers, The Maynard News and the Maynard Enterprise, both served the towns of Maynard, Hudson, South Acton, Stow and Concord Junction (West Concord). Annual subscriptions cost $1.50. Advertisements for wicker baby buggies listed prices of $10 to $45. Automobiles started at $700.   

Although the 'Great War' [World War I], had started in July 1914, the United States did not enter until April 6, 1917. From an editorial: "War has been declared between the United States and Germany. On Friday, the House voted 373 to 50 in favor of war, thus authorizing the President, as Commander-in-Chief... it is probable that an army of at least 500,000 men will be raised immediately, and others will follow..."  By the war's end, 19 months later, close to five million men had entered the armed forces, and there had been 53,400 combat fatalities and 63,100 non-combat fatalities. The total represented one-tenth of one percent of the country's population. In contrast, The United Kingdom lost two percent, and France and Germany, more than three percent (not counting civilian deaths).

Stow and Maynard would have a combined total of 428 serving in the armed forces, with 13 fatalities. In Maynard, the American Legion Post, on Summer Street (its building sold in 2016 and converted to condominiums), was named after Frank DeMars, the first of eight Maynard residents to lose their lives. Bronze nameplates on posts in various locations about town honor those men. Maynard's Memorial Park - dedicated in 1925 - has a plaque listing all enrollees. Stow's War Memorial, in front of the Randall Library, also identifies those who served and those who died.

An item in the paper in August noted that Maynard resident Toivo Alto drowned while bathing at Vose Pond. He had immigrated from Finland to the U.S. ten years earlier, and worked at the mill. He, his wife, and children had gone to the pond, a popular bathing spot. Although he had been seen going under the surface, and was brought up to the surface in a little over a minute by other bathers, he could not be revived. The doctor ruled cause of death as heart failure and drowning.

Maynard High School baseball team, Spring 1917. The man in the suit was
Principal Horace F. Bates, graduate of Harvard and coach of the team. 
1917 was the first year for high school seniors to graduate from the new high school. That building is currently the east wing of ArtSpace, on Summer Street. The graduating class numbered only thirteen students. Maynard's population at the time was 7,000. Stow's was 1,100. Maynard's Annual Report recorded 111 deaths, 92 marriages and 236 births. There were 188 dog licenses issued, and taxes collected for 151 horses and 129 cattle. Cars and trucks were not yet tallied or taxed.

The Town of Maynard Annual Report adds a bit more detail to life at that time. The fire department was debating replacing the horse-drawn ladder wagon with a motor truck. It had been a quiet year, with only ten fire calls for the entire year. The police report for the year included 88 arrests for drunkenness, 44 for assault and battery, 6 for larceny and 3 for profanity. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

ARRT Progress Report May 2017

Ground-breaking ceremony for Assabet River Rail Trail - July 2016
May 27, 2017: Footbridge over Assabet River now open. Approaches still need some work. Mile marker post shows 1.25 miles from bridge to Stow/Maynard border. All paved and open.

At a July 2016 ceremony in Maynard, representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the towns of Acton and Maynard met to oversee and celebrate ground-breaking for the $6.7 million construction of 3.4 miles of the Assabet River Rail Trial (ARRT) in the two towns, to run from the Stow/Maynard border in the southwest to the Acton train station in the northeast. Completion of this part of the trail is planned for spring of 2018. The contractor for this multi-year project is D'Allessandro Corp., a Massachusetts-based company with lots of experience in road, sidewalk, park and water management projects.

May 2017 is seeing efforts to complete much of the trail in Maynard. Starting from the south end, the trail is receiving the second/final layer of asphalt pavement, street crossing lights, signage, a parking lot at Ice House Landing, mileage markers, benches, bicycle racks, stone dust shoulders, topsoil and landscaping. The footbridge behind the post office, installed in February, is expected to be opened soon. Farther northwards, there is a bit of unfinished business just south of Summer Street, and then the soon-to-be-completed part of the Trail extends as far as Concord Street

Stow/Maynard border, looking toward Maynard. Stone posts show distance in
miles from the border, going north. Click on photos to enlarge.
The southwest end terminates at an entrance to the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, which offers 15 miles of trails, half open to bicycling. ARNWR has parking lots near the north and south entrances. Walkers and cyclists are also permitted to travel 1.85 miles farther west on the unpaved, privately owned "Track Road," which ends at Sudbury Road, Stow

Going the other way, all of the Trail north of Concord Street is an active construction project, not open to the public. There has been tree clearing and pre-paving leveling, but construction is expected to continue through the summer and into the fall before any parts of this are finished.

Map of Track Road section.
All of the current project is the north end of a planned 12.4 mile trail. The south end, 5.8 miles in Hudson and Marlborough, was completed years ago. Connecting the two along the route of the original railroad, which would include Track Road, would cover 3.2 miles and cross the Assabet River twice. An alternative would be to go through the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge south before turning west. This would add many (scenic) miles to the originally proposed length, but obviate the need for the two bridges. Either way, the connection project is years away.

New benches at Mill Street. Route 117 in background.
An oft-asked question is whether the Acton end of ARRT will be connected to the Bruce Freeman Trail (from Lowell, through West Concord, to Sudbury). There is no disused rail right-of-way between the two, and thus no good option for an off-street connection. One possibility would be to create a three mile long bicycle lane on School Street and Laws Brook Road

Bruce Freeman Trail is also a work in progress. Construction is nearing completion for a bridge over Route 2A, but not as far south as over Route 2. That, and the extension to West Concord and points south are in the future.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wolves Repopulate Massachusetts - NOT!

Before Europeans arrived in North America, what is now the 48 contiguous states, i.e., all but Alaska and Hawaii, was home to an estimated 250,000 wolves. And 10 to 20 million deer. Nowadays the estimates are 5,500 wolves, and 25 to 30 million deer. There has been lobbying to restore wolves to the east, much as was done for bald eagles, but no action expected in the near, middle or distant future. Because it is one thing to restore the national symbol, and another to have the big, bad wolf wandering about the Berkshires.  

The anti-wolf movement started ten years after the Mayflower landed. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony approved a bounty for each wolf killed. Other colonies followed suit, at times switching back and forth between bounties paid to anyone and professional hunter/trappers. The first cause for this animosity was to stop depredation of domestic animals - cattle, sheep and pigs. Wolves had been eradicated in England and Scotland long before colonization to the Americas, so while the settlers had folklore of the depredations of wolves, actually losing livestock was a rude jolt.

By 1840 there were no more wolves in Massachusetts. Henry David Thoreau had lamented that of New England's wild life, nothing larger than foxes remained. Wolf extirpation followed in neighboring states, so by 1900 there were no more wolves in New England.

The practice of killing wolves to make land safer for pastured sheep and cows shifted west as Americans moved west. In time, a second cause evolved. The early decades of colonization treated wildlife as an inexhaustible resource. Deer were hunted for family consumption, but also for the market for meat that grew as cities grew. In time, game became scarce, hunting for market was banned and the concept of licensed sport hunting matured. Wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned so there would be more deer and elk to be shot for sport. Anti-predator attitudes extended to mountain lions and coyotes.  

What was learned, slowly, was that without apex predators, herbivores will multiply to beyond what the greenscape can support. Starting in 1994, a great experiment was conducted in and around Yellowstone National Park. Thirty wolves were trapped in Canada and released in the Park. Within ten years the population peaked at approximately 300. It has since declined to half that due to pack-to-pack competition for territory and out-migration. The elk population declined from 20,000 to what may be a stable 5,000. Mule deer, moose and bison populations showed little change. Spending by hunters is way down, but is more than compensated by wolf-related tourism. 

There have been other interesting consequences. The coyote population has been halved, but the grizzly bear and cougar populations stayed stable. Bald eagles and ravens - scavengers at wolfkills - increased in number. With the end of over-grazing by elk much plant life recovered, bringing biodiversity.

The concept of "ecology of fear" came out of this experiment. When animals continuously fear predators, behavior changes. More time spent on surveillance and staying nearer to safe havens means less time eating. Less time eating slows growth and reproductive success. Locally, our examples of animals without fear include turkeys and geese.       

Looks like lunch! (Internet download, click on photo to enlarge.)
There are proposals to restore wolves to upstate New York and northern Maine, which in time would result in populating surrounding regions. A big question: Will wolves attack people?  Nineteenth century newspaper accounts describe wolf packs attacking and eating children, adults, even armed adults who managed to kill some of the wolves before dying. Wolf attacks on humans are very rare now, but the main cause is that wolves are rare. What is being reported are increasing numbers of attacks on dogs. Hunters that use off-leash dogs for licensed bear hunting are reporting dog kills in Idaho, Wisconsin and other states. Pet dogs have been taken in parks in Minnesota.

There is an argument for a net benefit from restoring wolves to the east. Currently, 150-200 people die each year from vehicle collisions with deer. Restoring wolves would reduce that number, perhaps at the cost of 1-2 deaths per year from wolf attacks. Logical? Yes. Emotionally reassuring? No. One solution would to be equip a wolf or two per wolfpack with a GPS device and have a wolf app on your smart phone.

Not in the newspaper column: In 2007 a wolf was shot in Shelburne, Massachusetts, after reports of an animal killing sheep and lambs. DNA testing confirmed the 85 pound male animal as a gray wolf. The nearest known wild wolf population was in Canada, some 350 miles away. Back in elk country, the estimates are that wolf packs will kill 22 elk or other large ungulates per wolf per year. Deer being much smaller, it could mean more than 50 deer per wolf per year! Meanwhile, there have been scores if not hundreds of documented coyote attacks on humans, sometimes by rabid animals and sometimes not. Two attacks have resulted in deaths - a three year old child (1981), and a 19 year old woman (2009). Rabies more commonly affects raccoons, skunks and foxes, but can cross to coyotes. A common sign of rabies is a loss of fear of natural predators (and humans), abnormal behavior, such as being active during daylight hours for a species typically nocturnal, and aggressive biting.