Oberlin Blogs

Winter Term, Part II

February 3, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


One thing I really like about Winter Term is how it gives us the ability to adjust our processes and goals as our project progresses. What we had in mind initially may look very different from what we end up with at the end of January.

When we discussed my ideas for my project of couple of months ago, my advisor asked me what I wanted to get out of a month spent messing around with herbs in my kitchen. She was concerned that I would poison myself, and I could tell that she was worried that I hadn't put enough thought into this decision. I told her the truth: I wasn't sure what the point of all of it would be, or what herbs have the potential to cause liver damage, or if I was embarking on a journey that would end up being too difficult or too boring. So I purposely went into this month with the idea that I would "see how things went" and figure out what my project was really about as I went along.

The good thing is, that happened. Not immediately, though. I started Week 1 by checking some books out of the library, identifying some herbs that seemed like essentials, based on the recipes I read, and tried to make a plan for what I would make every day that week. Looking back at that careful schedule, it appears that I made...none of those things--that week, at least. In my agenda, I wrote "Lavendar [sic] Essential Oil" for Tuesday, January 6. I'm not sure what I was thinking at the time; making essential oils requires a complicated distillation process using equipment that 99.999% of college students don't have in their kitchens. I also planned to make a St. John's Wort Tincture (to be taken orally) and a St. John's Wort Salve (to be administered topically) that week. Well, a tincture usually requires some sort of alcohol as a base, to infuse the herbs into, and I probably realized this and picked another recipe that didn't require a 21-year-old to purchase the essential ingredient. As for the St. John's Wort Salve, I ended up making that later in the month. After the first week--day, even, I was more flexible with planning what I made every day, and sometimes decided on the spot.

As January progressed, so did the types of things I made. This makes sense, being a beginner who needed two weeks to really figure out how concocting with herbs worked. At the beginning of the month, I did a lot of reading: reading about herbs and their properties, reading recipes, reading about the history of indigenous herbalism. I started some simple recipes.

The first thing I "made" took three weeks; I put some Lavender and St. John's Wort in jars filled with olive oil, and put them on my back porch to infuse in the sun. This turned out to be only moderately successful, for a couple of reasons. First, my house faces north and gets only a couple hours of direct sunlight during the winter. My infused oils weren't exactly cooking out there. I also had some conflicting information about whether or not I was supposed to use dried or fresh herbs. Dried herbs can be great because they don't have any spores or mold growing on them that can make your oil nasty, but fresh herbs retain their medicinal properties better. My St. John's Wort oil was supposed to turn a deep red color, but it didn't, probably because the herbs were dried and no longer held the plant's characteristic red oil seeds. Trial and error ended up being a tedious, yet essential part of my project. That first week, I also made a chamomile syrup (which can be taken by the spoonful to help with relaxation and falling asleep), some different types of teas, and candles. The candles didn't really have anything to do with what I was studying, but what can I say, I had a hankering.

Once I had mastered the basics, I bought a few more ingredients and expanded my repertoire a bit. I tried to make the St. John's Wort Salve, which turned into an oily mess that I would never want to put on my body. I also started making lip balm, which is basically the same thing as an herbal salve and surprisingly easy to make. All it requires is some beeswax and an oil (like almond, grapeseed, or olive oil) to be melted together and poured into an appropriate container. Adding essential oils can give the balm a scent, like tangerine or peppermint. This general formula can be applied to many moisturizers and beauty products that we buy, except these ones don't have nasty chemicals and can be made in your kitchen with ingredients from a natural foods store.

I also learned a lot about aromatherapy, and how it overlaps in some ways with herbalism, and is different for other reasons. I spent a long time reading an encyclopedia-like book that described the properties of plants' scents and how they can be used to improve mood and health. For some reason, this area of study was really appealing to me. Aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years, and it is interesting to note that many of our modern medical practices have existed for less than a century, yet are considered by most to be far more effective and trustworthy than solutions based on knowledge of herbs.

On that note, most herbs out there are perfectly safe to use if you are using them correctly and are generally cautious. It is important to know if any plants could potentially interact with other medications you take. I usually cross-checked any information I read in a book about the safety of an herb with information on the internet, just in case that information was outdated.

The only (not too serious) mishap that occurred with an ingredient I used happened after I concluded my project and was visiting my friend in Seattle before coming back to Oberlin: I had packed my little bottles of essential oils in my socks. I thought this was a great idea, because I was most concerned about the bottles breaking in my suitcase and knew that a ball of socks would be good cushioning. Well, a day into my visit, I put on a pair of socks that had protected my peppermint essential oil. After about an hour of wearing them, my left foot felt numb and tingly (just imagine what it would feel like to have your foot covered in toothpaste), and I was convinced I had a blood clot that had developed on top of the Space Needle. It took several hours of freaking out and obsessively Googling for me to remember that the essential oil had been packed in that pair of socks, and I already knew that essential oils should never be put directly on your skin, because they can cause serious skin irritation. It was a very embarrassing mistake, but luckily a non-toxic one that went away in two days!

I really enjoyed reading Sacred Plant Medicine by Stephen Harrod Beuhner, which described the practice of herbalism in the American indigenous tradition. Drawing from these traditions, he provides an interesting perspective for examining the power dynamics on Earth, between humans, plants, and other animals. He argues that plants, because of their ability to heal and nourish the earth, are far more powerful than humans, despite our "control" over the planet. This idea makes a lot of sense to me, and I think that it will play into my thinking about environmental issues in my classes. This sounds corny, but I think that I do have a new appreciation for plants and the power of the natural world in general, but not necessarily because of their power to help me, but because they have that power at all. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I'm still figuring out how to articulate this.

Overall Winter Term was a really good experience for me. I learned a lot, and had fun exploring a new area of study from the comfort of my kitchen. As for "the point of it all," it's still unclear. I'm starting to think that a Winter Term project doesn't need to have a "point" at all; I got something out of it, right? Learning without specific guidelines or goals was probably exactly what I needed. I'm relaxed and ready to take on the semester, and my socks still smell like peppermint.


I began our last post by talking about how I was in Florida and it was 70 degrees and sunny. Now I am in Oberlin and it is 16 degrees and I just received an email alerting me of snow emergency parking that will be taking effect in the next few days. While I am excited to be back, it has certainly been interesting adjusting to the weather.

Of course, my winter term had other benefits besides just the weather. My internship was a lot of fun and really showed me what life would be like working for an environmental activism organization. While I am not entirely sure that that is the life for me, it was certainly an enjoyable way for me to spend the month, especially because I got to do a variety of activities both related and unrelated to my project.

First of all, my internship did not only involve copious amounts of copying and Excel spreadsheets, but also involved going outside a lot - all of which are things that I like. I got to go to a lot of different places in Florida. Of course I made the obligatory trip to the beach, but I also went to a few state parks, a marine lab, a botanical garden, and a lot of other fun places.

I also got to see a lot of my favorite things...animals. In addition to tons of seabirds, lizards, and senior citizens, I also got to see a flock of chickens, 30 baby alligators (in the wild) and some really cute rabbits.

Here's a video of baby alligators (not the ones I saw). They are so cute!

Additionally, I had the opportunity to try some new food - my boss was also a vegetarian and had very good taste in restaurants. I went into Winter Term never having eaten falafel and now I am basically a falafel addict. I also got to eat at an awesome vegan café - I didn't even know that type of thing existed before this Winter Term, so it was great to know that there is some hope for this world. Now we just need vegan cafés where you can pet cats before and after your meal and I can die happy.

Speaking of trying new things, I also rode the bus to work every day. Growing up in the suburbs, I had never really had the opportunity to use public transportation on a daily basis. Actually, I think this was a pretty important part of my project, since, when working on environmental activism, we often emphasize the importance of public transportation, so the fact that I had never used it extensively was pretty hypocritical when you think about it.

Another interesting aspect of my Winter Term experience was that I spent the month staying with my grandparents. While I saw my grandparents regularly when I was living at home, I have not had as much of an opportunity to see them since I went to college. This way, I got to spend an entire month with them, which is not an experience I had ever really had before.

Overall, I think that this Winter Term gave me a great opportunity to try something new. It also gave me a great opportunity to get out of the cold. I was actually excited to see snow when I got back to Oberlin, whereas most years the sight of snow would be worse than the sight of Chinese is going to be when I walk into the first day of class this semester after having been out of practice for over a month.

Of course, different people have different Winter Term experiences, so now we're going to check back in with Caroline and Sami.

Caroline '17

My winter term project, which took place in Craftsbury, VT, at an outdoor center near where I live, went very well. The time I spent on it consisted mainly of assistant coaching cross country ski practices for groups of elementary, middle, and high school students. I was able to teach children of varying skill levels (from beginners to older skiers training for competitive races) how to improve their skiing and introduce them to fun activities that hopefully increased their enjoyment of the sport. The practices I assisted were usually run by an outdoor center employee who skied in college and recently graduated, but I also got to help plan and single-handedly run some practices for a local middle school program. The outdoor center also hosted a handful of high-profile and large ski races, which I volunteered at as part of my winter term as well. It was really fun to see and be around some of the nation's best cross country skiers and see them do what they do best.

Though it didn't count as part of my winter term project because you can't receive compensation for something you count as credit, I also returned to my old summer job as a prep cook/dishwasher at a kitchen/dining hall at the outdoor center for six weeks, which I enjoyed immensely because my coworkers are really great and we use a lot of great local food when we can. Overall, I spent nearly every single day at this outdoor center for the entirety of my time at home either doing things for my winter term project, working, or both.

Sami '17

My winter term project ended up going well. It was terrifying at first, because I showed up with no theater experience, expecting to be helping out with pretty minor tasks. Instead, they put me on stage and made me part of the cast. I never expected to do anything like it, but now I can say that I was in a play that got a rave review from Ben Brantley. It was incredibly rewarding, and so much fun!

It looks like we all stepped out of our comfort zones in some way, be it a little or a lot, and tried something new. I am glad that I had the opportunity to pursue the project that I did, and I am glad that I will have two more Winter Terms to explore more of the literally endless opportunities to be pursued during that time. Despite the success I experienced over Winter Term, I am so excited to be back at school. Classes have just begun and I am already learning so much. I hope you all are as excited to hear about this semester as I am to experience it.

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