Reading Braiding Sweetgrass and Childhood Memories: June 27, 2022

Cattails in Autumn

I woke up shortly after three this morning. I don’t know why. Perhaps I subconsciously knew that this was the birthday of my two children, now thirty-nine and forty-three years old. But I wasn’t thinking of them, and I wasn’t worrying about world problems. I was wondering what had happened to the Global Entry renewal I’d applied for months ago. Where was the notification? Had I mislaid it? My restless mind would not let me fall back to sleep.

When I despair over the fate of Mother Earth and our nation, reading and reflecting on my past can provide balance and respite. So, I got up, taking Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautifully written Braiding Sweetgrass with me. Her book of stories combines scientific and indigenous knowledge. The chapter “Sitting in a Circle” reminded me of my childhood. Our small group of Elder Activist Readers has been sharing our responses to books on climate change and the environment for nearly two years. Each book has been enlightening and challenging us in its own way. Right now, we are reading and discussing Braiding Sweetgrass.

But before settling into the book, I needed to check on the Global Entry application. Luckily, I could log in with only a verification code texted to my phone. I discovered that the application was still in progress, just as it had been on March 17. Why? My husband got his renewal in two days. Maybe they think eighty-year-olds have no time to waste? Perhaps they discovered some secret in my past? I shot off a message to the help page (which still has not responded two weeks later) and returned to Braiding Sweetgrass and my childhood.

In the chapter “Sitting in a Circle,” Robin Wall Kimmerer takes a group of university students to the woods to discover what necessities of life they can find there. They joke about going shopping at the “Wal-marsh,” but are appropriately awed when they learn that cattails can supply almost everything needed to sustain human life.

When I was a child, cattails beckoned from the ditches along the roads in my Upper Peninsula of Michigan home. Although they looked near, they were difficult to reach without falling into deep ditches and getting wet. One day, my brother and I convinced our father to stop the car and pick some for us. It was fall, and the cattails were overripe. As we stroked the furry brown tails in the back seat of the car, they exploded into a storm of fluff that filled the air and clung to everything, much to my mother’s dismay. My father stopped the car and chucked out the offending cattails. He never picked any again, and even when they were green, they were never allowed in the car despite our begging,

t those fat brown tails and their dramatic tall leaves always fascinated me. It was not until I read Braiding Sweetgrass that I discovered the many uses of cattails. There is food in the stems, fruit, and rhizomes. Insulation and bedding can be made from fluff. Sleeping mats and roofs are constructed from waterproof leaves, and the protein-rich pollen is added to pancake flour. The stems also contain an aloe-like gel to soothe skin irritated by mosquito and black fly bites, and hands chafed from pulling the cattail leaves. I am sure local indigenous people could have told us about the many gifts cattails provide, but as far as I know, no one bothered to consult them.

In summers, we picked dandelions and braided them into crowns. But I was an adult before I made dandelion fritters. We made hats of ferns, but I have yet to eat the fiddleheads that emerge in spring. We learned that the plump, sweet red wintergreen berries and the not-so-sweet but still refreshing leaves that emerged from under the melting snow were good to eat at a time of year when little else was edible. However, we were cautioned never to pick and eat wild mushrooms, although we knew some people did. Our parents told us that one mistake in identifying a mushroom could mean death.

Although we were warned not to eat things we didn’t know about, beautiful sumac bushes with lovely, fuzzy pyramidal spikes of fruit grew on the roadside near my grandfather’s farm. “Poison sumac,” the grown-ups called it, although they couldn’t tell us whether it was poisonous. We picked some of the fruit and, risking our lives, sucked on it – discovering it had a slightly sweet, astringent taste. We suffered no ill effects, but our elders disapproved. There was no internet in those days, but today, I looked up sumac and found it is possible to buy sumac seasoning, make sumac lemonade, and use the berries for many other things. I also learned that the poison sumac plant is different and more closely related to poison ivy. I also discovered it is possible to buy ingredients made from the various parts of cattails.

We knew wild gooseberries and black and red raspberries were good to eat. We ate the sour chokecherries that grew on shrub-like trees in the fields, and juneberries that I later learned were called Amelanchier, shad, or serviceberry. Sometimes we found the branches of the juneberry bushes pulled down to the ground by bears, making it easier for us to reach any that were left.

 We ate apples that grew wild in the hedgerows along the roads. My mother told us the apples had probably grown from cores she had thrown as a child. They are growing there still – perhaps some of them from the apples I once ate and tossed.

 In August, the blueberries ripened, and word spread around town about where they grew the thickest. There were good crop years and bad. We had to watch for bears when we picked. Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal was one of the only books I had as a child that depicted a life like mine. Little Sal wore overalls, not a dress, and walked in woods and fields that looked like those I knew, not the manicured parks that passed for the woods in other books.

Kimmerer writes (on page 200) that the wildflowers and plants that flourish in old-growth forests do not return in the new-growth forests. My mother often took my brother and me into “Grammy’s woods,” a mature hardwood forest, where she showed us the spring flowers: hepaticas, bloodroot, dog-toothed violets, sweet violets, dutchman’s breeches, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, lady’s slippers, and more.

My childhood friend Linda, who became an anthropologist, and I, now in our seventies, sometimes reminisce about our childhood adventures and reflect on how our explorations in the Upper Peninsula woods have influenced us. The eighteenth-century proverb goes, “Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” Now we exchange recommendations for books and zoom lectures and try to acquire some of the indigenous knowledge we missed out on as children.

Elder Activist Readers’ Book List (in order of reading as of June 2022)

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkerson (eds). All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, 2020 (read Jan 2021)

Shalanda H. Baker. Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition, 2021 (read Mar-Apr 2021)

Arlie Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 2016 (read June 2021)

Kate Haworth. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, pub 2017 (read Jul/Aug 2021)

Lydia Millet. A Children’s Bible (a novel), 2020 (read Jan 2022)

Paul Hawken. Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, 2021 (read Feb/Mar 2022)

Kristen Olsen. The Soil Will Save Us, 2014 (read Apr/May 2022)

Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013 (read June 2022)

Plus, we watched: Kiss the Ground (video)

My Crockpot

23 January 2022

My Vintage Crockpot

How many electrical appliances in your kitchen are more than forty years old? Countless electric toasters, microwave ovens, waffle makers, popcorn poppers, hand-mixers, and coffee pots have come and gone in mine, along with an electric knife and a knife-sharpener-can-opener combination that I decided were not worth their counter or storage space.

I still occasionally use an electric frying pan that my brother and I bought as an anniversary present for our parents in the 1960s. It brings back memories of my college days in a first apartment shared by four of us who rotated cooking on a daily schedule. Jane owned the electric skillet, which we put to regular use, frying chicken, making stews, pot roasts, pork chops, hot dogs, and batches of chile (often using recipes from another cherished well-worn antique, the hilarious I Hate to Cook Cookbook by Peg Bracken that contained such memorable favorites as Chilly-Night Chili, Stayabed Stew, and Cockeyed Cake. I owned the cookbook, a gift from the irrepressible Gen Markle, one of my mother’s closest friends, who inscribed it (with my slightly misspelled name), “To Linnae with love, and best wishes for a happy and nutritious year.”

 I still occasionally still make Cockeyed Cake. But my usual stand-by these days is an Australian plain cake, which becomes dazzling with the addition of jam or jelly, fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, raspberries, or whatever is available). A few dollops of Grand Marnier or Amaretto and lots of freshly whipped cream hold the layers together and cover the whole thing. I call it Australian Cake, although there’s probably nothing Australian about it. It was inspired by my friend Jenny in Melbourne, who not only added all the extras to the “plain cake” recipe found in an Australian cookbook but often presented it with the flourish of a ribbon wrapped around it, a particularly clever trick if you don’t have enough whipped cream to cover the sides.

But, my prized long-running-hit kitchen appliance is a flaming orange Rival Crockpot, one of the first purchases I made in 1973 when after four years of living on savings and meager graduate-student fellowships, I finally could afford to buy some extras. I had a real job, teaching at the College of Ganado on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, and there was a fairly new large FedMart store in Window Rock, a thirty-minute drive over the Defiance Plateau. The store was much like a modern Walmart or an old-fashioned general store, with almost anything one could possibly need or want, at a low price. 

I would fill my crockpot with stew meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, and maybe some celery, garlic, and tomato sauce or paste in the morning. Then, I would work all day, or spend a day exploring the countryside before coming home to a delicious hot dinner. As the ads for the crockpot said, “It cooks all day while the cook’s away.”

 I’ve never done any of the fancier things the crockpot is said to do, like make cakes or bread, but for years I’ve used it to make pot roasts, stew, and one-pot meals of various kinds. I also sometimes use it to cook dried beans, and in cold weather make hot spiced apple cider, or another old favorite from one of my mother’s close friends, “Hilma’s Holiday Glogg,” (pronounced gloog), a Swedish recipe that involves large quantities of burgundy, raisins, and cardamom seeds, served in teacups with a dollop of vodka or bourbon to top off the already-potent brew.

Over the years, I have relied on the crockpot, whether I’ve been dashing off to work or school, spending a day with guests, or hiking in the mountains. It is wonderful to come home to an aromatic hot dinner and is well worth the twenty minutes or so it takes to prepare the meat and vegetables or dried beans before rushing off in the morning, leaving the meal to cook safely for eight to twelve hours. The meat cooks first, the vegetables more slowly.

 I love the simplicity of this old pot, which unlike more recent and more popular incarnations with countless buttons to push for various settings, requires nothing more than an electrical outlet. Its three settings; off, low, and high, are operated by the turn of a dial. What could be simpler? I have looked at the new instant pots, but like my new-fangled oven, which requires an instruction book to operate all its bells and whistles, they seem unnecessarily complicated, although perhaps they can do more. Sometimes less is more, and after almost fifty years, this simple appliance still works perfectly. What more could I want?

Inscription in the I Hate to Cook Book, 1964
Chilly-Night Chili Recipe from The I Hate to Cook Book

Morning Thoughts

July 9, 2020:  The First Tomato

I am up early this morning, enjoying delightfully cool hours that should be quiet, but are not. For some reason the sound of traffic is loud, not only from I-40 half-a-mile away, but also from the surrounding streets. I water the potted plants in the patio, which are blooming profusely, thriving on Miracle Gro. I fill the fountain, eye the bird feeders (which also need refreshing) and wander out to the three tomato and half-a-dozen basil plants in the bigger yard. I water them, too, and when I bend down to feel the reddest tomato, it slips off the vine and into my hand. It is ready.

I return to the kitchen and touch the overly large peaches in their protective carton.  The house is warmer inside than out, and the peaches (not from the garden) are softening. They must be eaten.  No hardship in that, although I was hoping to save some for the family visit in a few days.

Our orchard’s peaches, along with the apples, plums, pears, and many of the cherries, froze this spring when unusual warmth was followed by sudden cold, dashing our hopes, just as the sudden onslaught of the Coronavirus rearranged our lives.

The family comes in four more days.  What should be a purely joyous time is filled with uncertainty.  All visitors from out-of-state are required to be quarantined for fourteen days.  What does this mean for us?  Both families have been careful for months now.  We will welcome them into our “bubble.”  I’m longing to hold Zia on my lap and read him stories and hold Rumi in my arms again while he is still a baby.  We will welcome and embrace our loved ones without social distancing, come what may.

Reading with Zia

Three weeks later: August 1, 2020

The family has come and gone.  They filled the house with youth, chaos, love, and laughter for ten days.   The cruel spring had turned into an even crueler summer, aside from a brief flicker of hope in early June.  We hold on to the possibility of meeting again, somewhere between here and San Francisco for Christmas, but that time seems so far away.  Baby Rumi will have had his first birthday, and I will have missed most of his delightful babyhood.  We’ve folded up the inflatable swimming pool, put the box of wooden blocks back in the closet, and piled the books into a stack. The house is quieter and neater now.  I wish it weren’t.

Life seems to be standing still, but it’s not.  It is divided into before and after, like the times before and after Ed’s cancer diagnosis, when our lives and our perspectives changed in an instant.  Then, as now, there were moments when we almost forgot, when we tricked ourselves into thinking the diagnosis wasn’t real and life continued much as it always had.  Tucked away now, in our cozy home and expansive garden, we sometimes forget that the world outside is no longer the same.

We met our lawyer this week, to sign amendments to our wills.  I changed out of my shorts and t-shirt, making an effort to be presentable and somewhat business-like.  I even put on a bit of lipstick, forgetting it would be invisible behind my mask.  Maybe eye make-up will be the next big thing?  But will anyone even see our eyes?  Will we ever get dressed up again for anything? We met in the lobby; our lawyer dressed as though for a comfortable Saturday at home.

August has arrived, a month that marks the final weeks of summer and the gradual transition into fall.  What will fall be like this year with no State Fair, no Balloon Fiesta, and almost certainly no Halloween?  I am mourning the end of life as we have known it, uncertain whether it will ever come back; and if it does, how will it have changed?  It came back after the 1918 flu and roared into the 1920s.   It came back after the plagues in the middle ages and sparked the Renaissance.   But it is hard to remain hopeful when everything appears to be spiraling downward, one disaster after another: politics, climate, and angry divisions among people who should be helping one another, not squabbling.  But, “hope is the thing with feathers.”

I escape, reading Kent’s life on boats; in my imagination still inhabiting that good-old-world, which in retrospect resembles a paradise lost that we did not appreciate when we had it; and that shocked us with its unexpected demise.  We are editing the stories and letters from the years when Kent and Pam “ran away to sea,” during a previous time of crisis in our country and in their lives.  We might ask if there has ever been a time that was not one of crisis.  We have so much to do, and like Alexander Hamilton we are running out of time.  Who will tell our story?  We write as fast as we can, but the garden beckons.  It, too, constantly changes and needs loving care.

I am thankful for the cool nights and early mornings of New Mexico.  Should I snuggle under the covers for a bit longer, or get up and enjoy the coolness, the flowers, the birds, and a tomato that has ripened over night?  Perhaps a bit of both?  Quo vadis?

Sometimes life in Coronavirus times seems to move at a snail’s pace, and sometimes one day blends into another, and we wonder where time has gone.

Birthday Reflections: May 29, 2020

Birthday lunch in the sunny patio.

It’ s my birthday morning.  Seventy-six years, twenty years into the 21st Century, and more than two months into the coronavirus lockdown.  Grandson Zia just turned three, and when he is my age, it will be 2093.  I won’t be here for sure, and most likely his parents won’t be either.

I haven’t been able to write during this pandemic.  The days and weeks seem to slip one past another with no clear boundaries.  Every two weeks we have irrigation water.  The cleaning ladies come on the weeks we don’t water, and the trash must go out every Wednesday evening.  St. Michael and All Angels has morning prayer via Facebook or Zoom at eight on Monday through Friday, and Sunday service each week at nine.  We have not met in person since early March.

A large multicolored cat just walked along the top of the wall under the grape arbor and crept down into the Catmint around the fountain.  What is it doing here?  Lured perhaps by the birds, the lizards and the water?  It has vanished as stealthily and silently as it came.  I’ve not seen this cat before, or at least not for a very long time.  How often does it visit us without our knowledge?

Ten years ago today I celebrated my birthday by inviting friends; some for breakfast and others for dinner, as they couldn’t all come at the same time.  I cooked early in the morning and again in the afternoon with some quiet time in between.  It was one of my favorite birthdays.  It was good to create my own celebration and do things for my friends rather than have them do something for me, as I knew no one else would plan anything.  I had returned from the first half of my first Camino from Le-Puy-en-Velay, France to Pamplona, Spain just a week before.

Birthday dinner 2010 with friends and my son Jesse in the patio.

It had been three years since Ed’s 81st and our last birthdays and wedding anniversary together.  He put a bit of birthday cake to his lips and tasted a sip of champagne, but he was no longer eating.  Four days later he was gone.  This is a poignant time of year for me.

Better, perhaps, to remember our joyous wedding thirty years before that, with its wedding cake plus two birthday cakes, and friends and families gathered around in State College, Pennsylvania.

Giddy with happiness we set out in Ed’s venerable Volvo wagon, the wedding bouquet of peonies from our friends’ garden wedged between the seats. We were off to Shenandoah National Park where we camped and walked among the Mountain Laurel and Rhododendrons.

May 29, 1977: a wedding cake and two birthday cakes.
Leaving in the Volvo, May 29, 1977

For thirty years we celebrated our birthdays and our wedding

anniversary together on this same day.  We had no regrets.

So, here I sit this morning at the old oak table we bought together, where we shared so many meals with family and friends.  It was at this table that Jesse, Psyche and I wrote farewell notes to Ed, to be slipped in with him along with red roses from the garden when we accompanied his body to the crematorium.

I woke early this morning, seeing the pink light of dawn through the unshaded bedroom window.  I cuddled with the sleeping Kent.  My mind was full of thoughts of the significance of this day, and I could not go back to sleep.  When rose-gold light hit the upper branches of the towering cottonwood that had been little more than a sapling when we moved here twenty-nine years ago, I got up and wandered out into the garden, thinking how fortunate I am to occupy this beautiful piece of earth.  A few finches flew from tree to tree and hummingbirds flitted from shrubs to the feeders.  The fountain was silent.  A passenger jet crossed the southern sky, heading west.  We haven’t seen too many of them these days.

There is a faint hum of traffic from the freeway, and now another plane flies over.  The world is waking up, and the coronavirus pandemic is becoming the new normal.

I am up early enough to catch the morning prayers at St Michael’s.  I’d never gone when I would have had to dress and drive to attend.  It is quite lovely to be able to do this from home.

Our hair is growing long.  It has been six months since I had my last haircut just before baby Rumi was born in November.  We are not unhappy with this quiet life.  We are editing Kent’s memoirs of his years living on sail boats. I am working on photos and trying to organize my computer files. I still have so many projects to do, I need at least another year or two of self-quarantine to make significant progress.

Yet, I long to travel again.  Will I ever walk another Camino?  Will my body keep going?  Will my mind?  I already find myself unable to remember things it seemed I could once recall with ease, and I forget things I thought I’d never forget.

I go outside to look for the cat.  Did it climb another wall, go through the heart-cut-out in the bottom of the gate, or run around the house to the front?  I’ll never know.

The fruit trees have finished blooming, most of the fruit killed by a sudden frost.  There will be only a few sweet cherries this year, and no plums, peaches, or apricots.  There may be a very few apples.  But the pomegranate is blooming now, and the roses.  Life is good.  Happy birthday to me.

Note: the news of the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policemen on Monday, May 25, had not yet reached me as I wrote this.  Since then, everything has changed again, and I would not be able to write now what I wrote then.  The sadness I felt on May 29, seems self-indulgent in light of what has happened in the past week.  More later.

Trip to Sweden 1939

28 April 2020

While cleaning up computer files during this time of sheltering in place, I stumbled upon a Powerpoint I had made 13 years ago, and completely forgotten.  The subject was my mother’s trip to Sweden in 1939, on the eve of World War II.  The PowerPoint was based on her diary and photos from her old photo album, black pages with photos fastened in with corners. 

At one point she writes to her father, “39 of the 40 pictures turned out,” calling to mind how very different photography was then then now.  She visited Helsinki (Helsingfors) where the 1940 Olympic Games were to be held.  Those games were cancelled because of the war, not to be held in that Olympic stadium until 1952.  Her diary and photos depict a vanished world that was about to be turned upside down.

Her passport has a notice that travel to Spain was not allowed. Spain was in the midst of its brutal civil war.  She traveled in a suit, as did her father.  Women wore hats.  She would never return to Sweden, although I made trips there and visited some of these same relatives in 1979 and 1991.  The powerpoint contained pictures of my visit in 1991 with my husband Ed and our two children, who were eight and twelve years old at the time.

I visited again in 2008.  Those pictures and the original scans from the 1939 photo album are posted on Flickr.

1939

2008

I converted the PowerPoint to iMovie, and added music. Enjoy!