"Of all I've learned, I learned the most how much I have left to learn."
I've been spending a lot of time doing squats lately. I read an article about a month ago that the size of our hippocampus (the part of our brain where memories are stored) is directly related to the size of our leg muscles. While the article was centered around ways to avoid memory-related diseases and disorders, I took it to heart that if I wanted to retain all that I had learned recently, and all the information I will continue to gather going forward, I better hit the gym. Since I have been spending the month of September sharing stories about my experiences with essential oils, and now September is all but a memory itself, I thought I would wrap this up with a few of the things I have learned that have stayed with me. This information is coming directly from my memory of articles and studies I have read, and, I will share my sources as I recall them. I encourage you to do your own research on these topics as you travel through your personal essential oil adventure.
Essential Oils and the "Grading System"
Walk into a grocery store and you'll see reference to "grades" all around you. Grade A beef, for example, refers to a high mark given by the USDA to let you know that beef has been inspected and approved as good quality for consumption. Look around at your essential oils, and you will see the term "Therapeutic Grade" all over the labels (including ours...for now). Some companies have even trademarked this grading system, creating a false certification, and false security. The truth is, essential oils in this country are not regulated, and nobody is grading them. The term "Therapeutic Grade" is actually one that is only there as a way to market oils as high quality, but doesn't actually mean anything. After reading many articles published by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), which is one of the most well-respected professional organizations overseeing this otherwise unregulated field of study, it became clear to me that it is not possible to use this verbiage to detect actual quality of oils. It is important to try many different brands, and locate companies you trust to know that their oils are pure. And even pure doesn't mean high quality. The quality of oils has much to do with when, where and how they are grown and harvested, even down to the time of day. From there, we have to take into account the distilling process, environment, and experience of the distiller. And even after all that, we are still subject to low quality oils if they are not stored in the proper containers or temperatures. It can be daunting. Because of this information, we will no longer be putting "therapeutic grade" on any of our labels or descriptions. Our distiller does not use the term, because they know it does not mean anything. This change may not been seen immediately, as I hate to waste anything, including labels that have already been printed, but the shift will be taking place.
Botanical Names Matter
Through my yoga studies, I spend a fair amount of time trying to learn the Sanskrit names of poses (asanas). Come to one of my classes and you'll see I almost never throw those out, as I don't want to get them wrong, and, in all honesty, I just don't know very many off the top of my head. I get by saying "Mountain Pose" instead of "Tadasana", and being able to be there and demonstrate what that looks like is helpful. It's a similar situation with essential oils, I have learned. It's fine to know the common name for Peppermint, for example, but if you are looking for a specific kind, or something from a specific area, it can be helpful to know the botanical name. Lavender and Frankincense are both really good examples of oils that will vary in scent based off the botanical name. Generally the botanical name references a specific species, or plant the oil comes from. The English Lavender plant (Lavandula angustifolia) is one of the most common lavenders used because of it's intense floral scent, but the Bulgarian Lavender (Lavandula vera) is the one most used by professional aromatherapists. The scent varies greatly between these two, as does the price. Frankincense has been one of my favorites to study, as there are several varieties of the Boswellia tree, all which produce Frankincense essential oil from the resin. The most commonly offered Frankincense on the market is Boswellia Carterii, having a smooth, relaxing aroma. We use the oldest documented Frankincense, Boswellia Serrata, because it is most often cultivated wildly from areas in India generally undisturbed by conventional farming, and the resin from this species produces the most oil, making it the most affordable. The oils from the different trees have slightly different aromas, but carry many of the same therapeutic benefits. Because we use Frankincense in many of our products and blends, it is important for us to find the most cost-effective variety, that still creates a high-quality oil. I have learned that knowing the botanical names is the best way to make sure you are getting what you want in the scent and origin, and to help decipher why pricing may vary so much from one oil to another, even when they have the same common name.
Get Educated Before You Ingest
Contrary to popular belief, essential oils are safe to ingest. Contrary to popular belief, essential oils are NOT safe to ingest. I get asked whether our oils can be ingested all the time, and I honestly think most of the time it's a way for people to determine if the oils we offer are the same quality they believe companies like Young Living and DoTerra offer. I say this because I am well aware that these companies advise it is safe to consume their oils because they are so pure. I have spent numerous hours studying this topic from all angles so I can advise my customers in the most educated, responsible way. There is a lot of controversy in the aromatherapy community about this topic, and I think facts and common sense should always prevail. It is a fact that with long-term, undiluted use, ingesting essential oils can cause problems with burning of the esophagus and can cause liver damage. Putting a drop or 2 of citrus oil in your drinking water is considered undiluted, because the oil and water never mix. It is actually safer and better for your body's pH level to ingest lemon juice, and ingesting lemon oil does not have any additional benefit to the body. Some oils should never be ingested. Oils should not be ingested daily for a long period of time. To use essential oils to combat symptoms of sickness by ingesting them could be beneficial, but only do so under the supervision of a qualified aromatherapy professional. Oils are most beneficial to the body when inhaled or used topically. Advising a consumer to ingest oils is not a qualification to how pure the oils are. In fact, the more pure the oils, the more careful one should be about ingesting them. There are safe ways to consume and even cook with oils, and it is advisable to do this only once fully educated on the risks and benefits by someone who is qualified to guide the process.
I have loved sharing this part of my journey. Of all I've learned, I learned the most how much I have left to learn. As a self-proclaimed creative type, turning into the sciency type has not been easy. I thought I could slide through this industry as a creative professional, making pretty things that smelled nice, having a blast doing it, and fitting a puzzle piece into the big picture of the natural, homestead life I love. The creative makes it fun, but the science makes it meaningful. A happily balanced nerdy artist emerges.
"How can you set your product apart at an art festival when so many people are doing the same thing? For us it has always been the smells. So many people tell me our products are the best they've ever smelled. Using natural oils is a great start, but I think it's more than that."
Step onto my driveway. Maybe avoid a day when the wind from the west is brining in the cattle smells from the Flannigan farm. My friend, Maggie, always jokes she can smell my house all the way out to her car when she pulls in. When I spilled a half of a pound of Spanish Marjoram oil on my floor one day I joked that maybe she could smell it from her house...way across the countryside. My yoga students often comment that I must be wearing essential oils, they can smell me across the room. And nobody enters the studio after my class without commenting on how good it smells in there...and I think that's saying a lot when you work in a sweaty gym setting. My life is filled with powerful aromatherapy, every inch, at every moment. I'd like to think that's what keeps me content, calm, and steady. I know it's what keeps me grateful.
We all have gifts we are able to develop over our lives. Whether we are born with these gifts or gain them through our life experiences, we all have things we are just better at than others. I love to sing in my car, loud, and with a ton of passion. This singing would quickly clear a room...well, not would, it has. I love music to a fault, but I just can't sing in tune. People who can sing are gifted. And, yes it can be learned and enhanced through practice and assistance, but it is a gift. Some people are good at science, art, or public speaking. I think in this realm of natural product creation, my biggest gift is my nose.
Of our 5 senses I think scent is my absolute favorite. Nature gifts us so many ways to interpret the world around us, and our ability to smell is so multi-faceted. Without scent, we can't taste. So many of the things we encounter we identify by the way they smell. Around the farm, scent depicts when the season is changing. Come to the country side as winter turns to spring, the odor of manure is so pungent, and, as spring carries on, it fades, until the season changes once again. A scent can trigger a memory so powerfully, it can literally bring us back years. While visiting my parents this past weekend I couldn't help but notice how powerful the smell of their house is, and no matter how many times the people, animals, and activities in the house has changed, the scent of the home stays exactly the same as when I was a child, living there with my family and my grandma's vintage green couch, sit-n-spinning my days away in the basement.
When I first started making product things were very simple. Product bases, pre-made recipes, varying ratios of water, oil, and wax. How can you set your product apart at an art festival when so many people are doing the same thing, and there is only so many ways to stand out? For us it has always been the smells. So many people tell me our products are the best they've ever smelled. Using natural oils is a great start, but I think it's more than that. I think I have a gift to be able to mix scents in a way that is balanced, yet unexpected. Just like any art I've created, I like to push the envelope with elements of surprise that lie in a bed of simplicity. Until I started studying the "science" of blending scents, I didn't even realize I was following the rules...and breaking them exquisitely.
The science of aromatherapy is based in how scents affect our moods and mindset. Smells truly can help us focus, make us calmer, or bring us feelings of joyful bliss from one moment to the next. Having the ability to feel many things at one time is a great gift of being human. I like being able to create opportunities for people to enjoy the complexity of multiple scents coming together perfectly to bring about an overall emotion that can stay true through all of life's ups-and-downs. Or just to get those whiffs of the soap they used that morning and question who in their office smells so good...only to realize, it's them.
"I ask a lot of questions about the origins of things we put into our bodies, and sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and maybe we are better off not opening that can of worms. I'm almost laughing as I say this, because, holy shit, I have worms everywhere."
My great aunt, Audrey, has a magnet on her fridge that reads, "I did what I knew. When I knew better, I did better", by Maya Angelou. I love staying at their house in Minneapolis whenever I attend the wholesale trade show at the Minneapolis Mart, and I often spend time on quiet mornings while everyone else sleeps, eating Uncle Don's Cheerios, reading and re-reading this quote. It reminds me nobody is born knowing anything. We live, we learn, we read, we experiment, and eventually, we know something. Sometimes we know what another human tells us, and sometimes we learn through our own experiences. Ours is a unique perspective, which is beautiful and true to us, but not always right. I won't even get started on "right", because what's right for one might not be right for all, and what's right today could be all wrong tomorrow. I will, for the time, just focus on what's better, in this moment.
When I was in college I took part in some really fun activities, some were good for me, and others were, well, questionable. On one particularly questionable evening, I ended up doing some pretty serious damage to my physical body. After a touch-and-go situation that I was lucky enough to come through alive to tell this tale, I was scared to use medications, or put anything harmful into my body. It was at this moment that I started seeking natural alternatives in pain relief and healing. It was in this time of my life, 20 years ago, that I discovered essential oils. I did a lot of reading, and even gave a presentation in my public speaking class about the benefits and therapeutic qualities of oils like Lavender for both physical and mental health. These were the things I needed at that time, and essential oils became my go to to just feel better about life.
Over the last 20 years I have continued on this journey to better. What started with essential oils moved far beyond. I started thinking much more about all the things we take into our bodies when we eat, apply something to our skin, or inhale what's hanging out in the air we breathe. I wanted to know not only what I was putting into my body, but how it affected my organs, my blood, my brain. Where did it come from? How was it processed? These are questions I think a lot of people ask, and sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and maybe we are better not opening that can of worms. I'm almost laughing as I say this, because, holy shit, I have worms everywhere.
When I got into making body products 14 years ago I thought I knew what natural was. I thought I knew about the world of essential oils, plants, and food. I knew enough...enough to get started. When I started my own retail brand in 2013, I had a baseline to start to do research, and enough experience to make some pretty awesome products in the kitchen of my rented farmhouse. I could find internet suppliers with ingredients I could experiment with, and enough curiosity to start to tiptoe into the world of natural bath, body, and home care. As I continue to learn I want to know more. "Where did it come from?" has expanded to "Who did it harm to get here"? And, "how was it processed?" is now "What will happen when it goes back to the Earth"? I'm getting answers to these questions everyday, and, with more answers come more questions. With more questions comes more research. With more research comes more ideas. With more ideas comes better. Better creations, a better company, better lives.
I love that you're here, reading this. I love that something brought you to this website, my story. I hope it's here you can believe that everything offered today is better than what was here yesterday. When something new comes along it's because it's better than what was here before. I am on a journey, a journey of learning, growing, and changing. When things are good, I will keep them good...until I can do better.
The photo at the top of the post is the beginnings of our own luffa garden. It was experimental this year and won't yield enough to be able to supply our luffa scrubs, but by this time next year we will be well on our way to having homegrown luffas to put in our products!
"The seasons of the earth and the seasons of life start to blend and memories come back when the daylight fades off, with the smell of a campfire, or the first rain shower after months of falling snow. What were we doing the last time this happened?"
I love the way my house hums in the morning when everyone is gone except me, the machines take over the messes, and I retreat into my head, cup of coffee in hand, and peace abounds. This is something I have not experienced to its fullest in several months, but today, as the kids and the husband return to the structure of the educational environment, I return to a place in time that is all my own…for at least a few hours each day.
On the farm we live life by the seasons. It helps that our kids are still young, and Chris works on a collegiate schedule, but even if that wasn’t the case, the land is ruled by mother nature, and she has a very strict schedule. This is so different than when we lived in Vegas and the only changes we saw were the ability to get into the car without scorching our hands on the steering wheel in the summer, and when we moved from having no way of removing enough clothing to be cool, to needing a light sweater in the winter…when it got sometimes below 50 degrees. Despite the temperature, the landscape remained the same, I got in my car each morning and went to work, only to return each afternoon. We chased life day in and day out, but never seemed to catch it. Maybe it’s not the environment that has created such a switch in our lives, but the way we approach it during this new chapter.
Seasons come and go as temperatures change, green turns to gold, chicks grow into chickens, seeds turn to food. They also change as kids turn into teenagers, romance turns to commitment, and parents become grandparents. The seasons of the earth and the seasons of life start to blend and memories come back when the daylight fades off, with the smell of a campfire, or the first rain shower after months of falling snow. What were we doing the last time this happened? Ah, yes, I was holding a cup of coffee looking out the window at a little gray cat side-stepping melting piles of ice to climb a tree, listening to the rain dropping onto thawing ground. The seasons.
At the changing of the earth it’s easy to look back in wonder at the pace that time flies by. I can hardly believe after months of waiting for summer to arrive, it is already coming to an end. From the first planting of seeds, we are now harvesting an abundance of food from our land. From those first days of summer vacation wondering how to best teach the kids the lessons of life at home versus the structure of the classroom, to seeing them in the garden, the chicken coop, or the woods, working, sweating, and finding joy (most of the time) in our homestead. The seasons.
For me, I sneak through summer by the threads of my britches trying to balance life as a homemaker, mother, wife, farmer, and crafter. In my zone in the kitchen with a to-do list half a mile long, I am interrupted with kids wanting me to play. How long is that going to be a thing? So, of course, I play. As the vegetables start piling up, Chris and I try to get creative on what to do with the ever-growing pile of cucumbers and zucchini. So I chop, shred, freeze, and bake. The ideas keep coming as our business grows, so I plan, research, test, retest, and create. The seasons.
Now we move to a time when the lack of interruption means a chance to structure a day with a little more discipline, a little more productivity. It also means more quiet time to think. Time to sit, and enjoy the life that surrounds us. Time to look around, and time to appreciate all that we have, all that we do, and the memories created with the changing of the seasons.