Weeds as greens

This blog is intended to be a record of my interactions with and learning about other species that share my property, Halcyon, with me.  I thought I’d start with an ubiquitous herbaceous species that we are all familiar with, Taraxicum sp., or the lowly dandelion. The seed heads thrill children, but the whole plant is the bane of many a landowner seeking a weed-free lawn.  At least it was the bane of my father.  To his credit though, he did not spray his lawn to rid him of this prolific weed (though this was probably because he didn’t want to spend the money on pesticides).  Instead he employed my sister and me to spend embarrassing summer mornings on our hands and knees digging the plants out by the roots.  We worked quickly hoping the neighbor children were not up yet to notice, and keeping our backsides toward our own house, just in case.  I used to imagine Maria across the street peering out the window and laughing while she enjoyed Sunday morning cartoons and air-conditioning.  I do not recall my father ever helping us with this task.  It was just part of our rent I guess.  I wonder if he knew that he could have benefited in other ways from our weeding efforts – a source of vitamin rich greens – that were instead thrown in the trash.  No, we didn’t compost either.  This was suburbia in the 70s.

I recall being told a story about dandelions and Central Park in New York City.  In the 1800s Italian families would picnic in Central Park and while doing so made a habit of picking dandelions as a food source.  It was a popular ingredient in their salads.  In a discriminatory attempt to rid the park of these immigrants, a law was created that banned picnics and any other such enjoyment of the green space.  In essence, “Keep off the grass”.  Very soon the city had a problem with dandelion weeds and resorted to spraying to keep them at bay.  It seems to me much cheaper and safer for all invoved to have allowed the picking of free edibles.

The only reference I found to verify this story: http://www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/01.29.98/dining3-9804.html states that the park welcomed the foraging by Italian immigrants each spring, an activity that now would be unwise due to the use of herbicides.  I don’t know which version is true; I just know that I have no problem letting the yellow blossoms populate my yard.  In a ‘root for the underdog’ mentality, dandelions have enamored themselves to me, largely in response to unhappy memories of having to rid our family’s front yard of what?  Pretty yellow flowers that weren’t bothering anyone.

Wikipedia states both that dandelions are native to North America and Eurasia and later that early European immigrants introduced them to North America.  I also learned that their long taproot brings soil nutrients up where more shallow rooted plants can benefit from them.  As a food source, all parts of the plant are edible.  All of these are sufficient merits for me to leave well enough alone, which I have.  We’ve never applied herbicides to rid our lawn of weeds, despite the fact that weeds outnumber grass more often than not.  We’ve never deemed it necessary to pull them out to impress the neighbors, a task on our 14 acres that would be grounds for checking our sanity.  But I’d never eaten them despite knowing of their culinary history.

For some reason, I just knew that it would be one of those things that did not taste all that great, but that die-hard foragers rave about.  I mean, if the Italians and French have used them for hundreds of years and elite New York City restaurants tout them as haute cuisine, then surely someone I know personally must love them and rave about them.  But I’ve never come across anyone who has tried them when I bring it up.  I’ve never seen any dandelion greens in our weekly CSA rations, and I might actually have been secretly delighted since I quickly tire of Swiss chard.  So try dandelions sat on my to-do list for several years.  Coming from someone who has tried all kinds of herbs, made my own tonic syrup for gin and tonics, and ate a home-cured ham, I was uncharacteristically hesitant about trying them.  This year I finally gave in.

I collected about two cups of leaves early this spring when I’ve read they are least bitter.  I decided to try sautéing them in olive oil with plenty of garlic.  I know this is cheating, but it just didn’t look as appealing as a gin and tonic.  I was pleasantly surprised, though I would not go as far as to rave about it.  I have since tried them two other times.  I picked enough to add to some mixed greens and ate them raw the second time.  It is definitely bitter, but not bad.  I also picked and chewed up a flower head one day after reading about a woman who treats dandelion flowers like lawn candy.  I liked the first bit of flavor that washed over my tongue, nutty and something else I can’t describe.  But then that bitter flavor took over and I quickly spat it out.  My lawn candy will be mainly for my eyes.  I will though, try dandelion greens again this fall.  I’ve read that after a frost some bitterness is removed.  I will think about immigrants collecting some nutritious greens – theirs to recharge after a long winter – mine to prepare for shorter days.   And I’ve added try dandelion wine to my new ‘learning about my land’ to-do list.

Aldo Leopold or Don Juan de Marco?

I am Aldo Leopold, the greatest naturalist that ever lived.  I have observed a thousand species on my walks and know their cycles and connections to my life.  Sounds delusional, right? Alas this reality exists only in my desires, in my wishes for growth and a need to be really good at something.  Why do I have a need to be the greatest at anything?  Am I hiding something, as the Johnny Depp character is in the movie Don Juan deMarco?  Or am I merely, as I think is my sincere intent, listening to a need in my life to know, to understand better the natural world, based on a life-long (but somewhere lost on a back shelf) love of nature, just as Marlon Brando asks his wife in the movie what became of their fiery love.

Of course, I have not even gotten beyond the dream stage: I want to be the Aldo Leopold of my land.  But, I am stuck already.  The above 90-degree heat for over a week does not help.  My brain and blood seem too thick to think and move.  That is my excuse this month.  But what of later?  I have made the first step – freed up an incredible amount of time – by quitting my job.  I suppose this proves perhaps that I am a bit unstable (I wouldn’t go as far as crazy).  I was a teacher and summer always had a strange flow to it after the extreme time pressures of the school year.  It usually took several weeks before I felt able to morph into a different rhythm.  Yet, I was lucky to have summers off, a chance to garden and explore my property.  Somehow I seemed to always be playing catch-up instead of immersing myself in my dream.  There’s also the fact that I don’t want to be a part-time summer naturalist.  Aldo Leopold did not just write about the summer season in A Sand County Almanac.  I want to understand the cycles that are happening year-round, year after year.  My property is enough scope for me, a great beginning, a laboratory already stocked and functioning – just waiting for the scientist with time to observe.

There is nothing wrong with my life.  I love it.  I love my family, my house and land, our community, our chances to travel, and most aspects of teaching.  But it’s going by too quickly.  Being in nature always makes me happy, fulfills me, grounds ME, in the context of the world, into a proper perspective.  I feel as Leopold did that man is only a member of a biotic team.  This perspective has always comforted me rather than unnerved me.  And the more I put off this hike or that adventure (let’s get chickens) because I was consumed by teaching, the faster it seemed to go, until last fall I realized that I have missed the last seven fall seasons at Halcyon, our property.  This disturbing awareness nagged at me all year and became exacerbated by the death, too early in her life, of my sister-in-law, causing me to seriously evaluate and challenge some basic life and happiness questions.  This in turn led to my decision to change, to alter my reality, to pick-up dreams that were forming when I was 18 and 24.  If I hadn’t misplaced them under obligations and self-imposed notions of what really matters, I could be a great naturalist by now.  I think that is one key to many accomplished people: they simply followed their dreams, not necessarily setting out to be great, but their passion mixed with steady progress and diligence to their hobby, craft, science, discipline, etc. allowed them, years later, to really be an expert at something, or at least incredibly knowledgeable on a subject.  They kept the passion burning under the slow, steady flame that the Faye Dunaway character credits in Don Juan de Marco as the key to sustaining a marriage.

My husband’s vocational passion has been rocks and the earth.  He has kept this passion alive through 25 years of study and even today, when he is distant in his thoughts, I know (thankfully, yet sometimes wryly), that he is thinking of rocks and not another woman.  I have friends with literary passions and they have found their niches writing and teaching writing and literature.  I have friends with a passion for nurturing young children, and they are wonderful teachers.  My last 25 years of work have been more disjointed: medical technologist, mother, citizen water-quality monitor, environmental education volunteer, molecular research technician, and elementary school teacher.   Yet they all have a common thread in science and I can see in hindsight a trend toward my naturalist dreams.  Without taking a jump off my treadmill, I might continue to misguide myself for years.  In my Master’s in Teaching program I wrote how teaching young children would allow me to rekindle my love of nature.  And it did.  Some.  It also took me further from nature in many ways, with 9-hour days in the school building and more at home in front of my computer.  So instead of trying to fulfill my dreams in a sideways manner, I am facing them head-on.  I want a biocentric view of Halcyon.  I want to know of the plants’ and animals’ life cycles and interdependencies. Their ancestors were here long, long before me and I have a great respect for their tenacity in the face of human interventions.  I want to reconnect with the girl who loved reading the Laura Ingall’s series and who was nicknamed Bertha Biology by her brother – I’ll even accept the awful nickname if it means I am worthy of the title.  I want to rekindle a flame, keep it burning slowly, and never let it die down again.  I want a chance to approach self-realization in the context of Halcyon.  I don’t want to change my reality the way Don Juan de Marco did.  I want to live authentically in the natural world, in my pursuit of happiness, like Aldo Leopold.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog.  I’ve worn a lot of hats for the last 25 years.  My newest adventure involves exploring my land, its species, our interactions, and sharing what I learn.

I live with my family on 14 acres in Rockbridge County, Virginia.  We’ve been here 11 years.  During this time I’ve held two different jobs, gone back to school, helped with major renovations on our farmhouse, and lived abroad twice.  In winter 2012, I came to realize that life is going by too fast and that I am constantly resigning aspects of our property, Halcyon, to the ‘back burner’.

After a lot of thought, I decided to leave teaching, my latest endeavor, and begin a new adventure.  This blog is an attempt to blend two dreams of mine, writing and understanding the natural spaces around me.  I hope, through my quest, you too can find something to ponder or share.