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)