Wednesday, May 26, 2010

the foraging explorers

The ladies have a new activity.
When they have read too many books, and art seems boring, and we have said "enough!", they put on their backpacks and go exploring.

From what I can tell, the contents of the backpacks are strictly defined. There is a water bottle, a notebook in each, and a pen or pencil. One volunteers to carry the bundled up potato chip bag swiped from the shelf, hopeful that she will have control over who eats what is inside. Sometimes there are random articles, some useful, some not-- a magnifying glass, a doll's sweater, a book to read together in case they find a place to rest, a few random pieces of jewelry. Sadie wears her watch and lets me know that they will be back at precisely 3:00. I know that they'll be back in 20 minutes, but I nod at the 3:00 deadline. I remind them of their bear safety (there is news of a mama with cubs hanging around the neighborhood), and they are off.

Right after Sadie was born, I started to imagine the most horrible things. I couldn't drive a car without envisioning another car plowing into the door that protected her little car seat from the rest of the world. As firm as I held her, I saw her fall to the hard floor in my mind, and in every corner there was an imaginary spider or some other monster waiting to bite her translucent baby skin.
By the time she was a month old, it was getting out of control. I was happy, and I didn't seem to have the postpartum depression that was plaguing so many moms. But in these isolated moments, I was terrified, and I was convinced that she wouldn't make it to her first birthday. I went to see a therapist who had helped me through a hellish year before college, and I only needed to see him once.

"Of course you're terrified," he said, gesturing to Sadie sleeping with a wheezy snore in my arms. "Look at her. Have you ever been responsible for anything so valuable? Have you ever held anything more perfect?"

I had not.

"By dreaming up these horrible fates," he continued. "I think you're praying. I think you're saying, 'Bring it on. I can imagine your worst, world. I am ready for it, and you can't surprise me."

With his assessment, along with the passage of time and the lessening of post-birth hormones, I began to trust that Sadie would be okay. Those waves still come here and there, and it remains to be the case that the fear that I feel as a parent is a powerful and overwhelming thing.

Regardless of my quiet fears, they've got their backpacks on, and they want to go exploring.

I think that we keep our children on a tighter leash than that on which we were kept 25 or 30 years ago. I am pretty sure that the world has not gotten any more dangerous; it's just that we have more ways to hear about the bad things. I have such clear memories of lying out in the middle of a field with my friend Sarah, far behind the house that our single mothers shared. We would run out there naked, and we would split open the milkweed pods and spread it over our little limbs, pretending it was sunscreen. We were three. I don't know which part to be more shocked about, that two three-year-olds were running around alone so far from home, or that two three-year-olds were running around naked without any actual sunscreen. Either way, it's clear that the rules are different now than they were then.

Far before 3:00, the girls tumble in the front door. They are sweaty and flushed and there is a wilted dandelion tucked behind Rosie's ear. They show me their little sketches of buttercups and the plant specimens that they found in the field. They report, with a bit of disappointment, that there was no bear to be found. The bag of chips is empty, and in addition, they have come back with some greens for a salad for me. Sweaty and wrinkled from Rosie's hand, there are lamb's quarters and a few leaves of baby lettuce.

The lettuce was intentionally grown, but the lambs quarters are a gift from the yard. Edible plants are always part of the adventure, and the girls will eat anything they pick themselves, especially if it is a weed. We are very careful that each plant has been carefully identified, and there are only two or three that the girls know they can munch without checking in with us first. Clover flowers, and those little sour bursts of green leaves we have incorrectly named lemon grass, the invasive but tasty garlic mustard; they graze on these here and there and fancy themselves in their own version of My Side of the Mountain. I watch them cross over from our yard into the field, and I take a little breath through the fear in my stomach. A lot has happened since that first month of mothering, and I now trust that the girls will make their way back home. They are learning the rules of things quickly, and with every new piece of knowledge, they help me to let go of my fears. They laugh at my anxieties, but they answer my charges nonetheless.

"If you see the bear?" (my heart beats faster even to think the sentence)
"If it doesn't run away, I lie on my belly and play dead." (they giggle at the words "play dead")
"And what can you eat?"
"Chips from the bag."
"Very funny. You know what I mean."
"Garlic mustard. No berries. Lamb's quarters."
"Did you sunblock your sister?"
"Yes! We're going!"

I know that I should savor the simplicity of what they need to know right now. Right now they go just beyond my sight, not so much further. I test their knowledge on edible plants and bear safety. In ten years? First relationships and designated drivers. Now that scares the hell out of me.

Luckily, there's some time for us to learn how to have those conversations. For now we practice with our lessons in weeds and bears. In ten years, I'll be older and (I'm hoping!) wiser too, and these talks and lessons will help create the format for the harder ones as their adventures take on different forms. They'll keep learning how to move through their world, and maybe I'll get better at letting them go.

Today? Let's just stick to the greens.

Lamb's quarters are a lovely spinach-y weed, easily identifiable by their goose foot-shaped leaves and the odd lavender powder around the center stem. They are especially good to recognize if you are a city forager, as I always seem to find them in abandoned and lonely window boxes and planters. If you are hungry in the city, you may just be able to make a salad on the sidewalk.

Lamb's quarters are best this time of year, when they are under a foot in height, and they are mild and light and ridiculously good for you. Both the leaves and stems are edible, and they are perfect in all places where you would normally use spinach, especially just sauteed with butter and a bit of garlic. Like the girls, I get a thrill from sitting in the yard and eating what I find right there, so I usually eat them raw. If they make it into the house, I'll grab a handful of lettuce and a few herb sprigs, and there is my explorer's lunch.

Lawn Salad

1/2 cup lamb's quarters leaves
1 cup baby lettuce leaves
1/4 cup parsley
a few sprigs of dill
1 teaspoon olive oil
salt and pepper

Combine the lamb's quarters, lettuce, parsley and dill in a salad spinner or a bowl of water. Dry thoroughly. Toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper.


  1. Lawn salad! What an awesome idea. I can't wait to try this out.

  2. Wow I never would have imagined such a salad. So cool!

  3. I love this post- I can totally relate to letting go of our children, a little at a time- the greens look yummy too!

  4. I am constantly amazed by you! I rarely regret not ever having children, it just didn't work out for me, but for years as you were growing up, visiting you and Jamie would twist those regrets into a little painful knot inside me. Now as I read your posts about your little ladies growing up, I feel the same familiar knot. Your posts are supposed to be about food, but they are so much more than that. You are an amazing writer, photographer, cook, and (in my inexpert opinion) mother and daughter (not necessarily in that order). For you and few others, I allow myself to get maudlin.

  5. Alexandra TinariMay 28, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    Thanks for this post, Alana. The storytelling part was so beautifully written, honest, and reflective that I didn't even need the recipe. Sometimes good words are food. (Book, please.)