Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 2 – Rubus!

This is the second in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin:

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How many times have blackberries scraped big bloody tears from your leg as you simply attempted to access the beach? Or the salmonberries taken over your garden and you spent day after day cutting them down and then digging out their stubborn, tough roots, only to find them growing back again a couple of months later? How many times have you planted delightful raspberry canes and found them soon interspersed with those godforsaken-spiny-blackberries-whose-fruit-is-inferior-and-nobody-seems-to-know-the-name-of?! Ha ha! Me too. But I love these Rubus anyway.

The Rubus genus is well-represented both in our gardens and in our island wilderness. We commonly grow raspberry, boysenberry, and wineberry in our gardens, but in the wild here we also find an abundance of red and yellow salmonberries, black raspberries, thimbleberries, and various blackberries: Trailing, Himalayan, and Evergreen (that horridly vicious spiky-looking one).

All of these are known for their heavenly berries, especially when ripened and warmed by the sun and picked during a hike through the woods. But did you know that you can use other parts of the plants as well? The leaves of red raspberries are well known for their use in teas as a uterine tonic, and black raspberry and young blackberry leaves can be picked, dried, and used the same way. Wear gloves, though – their thorns grow under the leaves as well.

And then there are the shoots. Every spring for hundreds if not thousands of years, the fresh shoots of salmonberry, blackberry, and thimbleberry have been harvested young and tender, often eaten fresh, steamed, pickled, or stir-fried. It’s June, and we’re a bit past this stage of their growth by now, but if you do find any soft flexible cane shoots extending up off the older canes or out of the ground nearby, you can pull your hand along them until they snap off like asparagus. When you’re ready to eat them, peel off the skin and prepare them any way you enjoy asparagus. It’s certainly very different, but totally delicious. And each species (even each colour of salmonberry bush) has a different flavour!

Finally berries.

Salmonberries – first of the wild rubus to ripen, they grow unstoppably all over the place, here – especially in wet meadows and roadsides. Those with exclusively green shoots grow yellow/orange berries, and those with red shoots grow red berries which darken to nearly black as they ripen. Salmonberries taste a little brighter, and with less of a rich flavour than other Rubus berries, although the red ones are sweeter than the yellow. Salmonberries seem to develop the most juicy flavour when they’ve plumped up in wet weather and sunshine, but then they’re so watery that they don’t work well in pies. They’re also a little too seedy for baking, since they lose so much water in the process that you’re left with mostly seeds. Also watch out if you’re picking after a few days of rain showers; they tend to lose their flavour, or even get mouldy inside.

Blackberries – sweet, rich, earthy, and a little bit terrifying, if you’ve ever been caught among them. And also the best for baking, which is why you may have been caught there in the first place, heading towards the middle of the brutal thicket, trying to fill a five-gallon bucket for pies. They seem to retain a lot of their juice and flavour when baked or frozen. For fresh eating, I prefer the trailing blackberries, which are smaller and less abundant than the huge invasive species, but which taste sweeter and more precious. Like little diamonds compared to big quartz crystals. One thing to watch out for, these days, is the increasing population of D. suzukii larvae (that’s Drosophila, not David, though you might be forgiven for any confusion…). You may not notice the tiny fruit fly larvae as you pick the berries and shove handfuls into your mouth, but if you freeze them on a tray you might discover many little frozen white larvae protruding from between the drupelets of the fruits. It’s OK. Insect-eating is growing in popularity. Just eat them anyway! They’re the last of the Rubus to ripen in our area, and you’ll want to store them all up for winter.

Black Raspberries – these are far less common here, but if you find them they’re absolutely delectable. So try to! The plants look a little like raspberries, more fragile than Himalayan blackberries, and with smaller leaves and stems than salmonberries. The berries themselves are much darker in colour than cultivated raspberries, but have the same dull waxy coating, so can reflect almost purple in some light. The taste is fantastic, and you’ll likely not find enough to satisfy, so just eat them all fresh and quickly, before they’re gone.

Thimbleberries – ripe around this time of year, tall and green and leggy; home to gall wasps and bane of my garden, and I know people complain about their lack of juice and consequent seediness. They don’t even ripen all at once, forcing us to graze very very slowly… just a few every day. But to me they are worth it all for the flavour. They’re almost shockingly sweet, with both the earthiness of blackberries and the tartness of raspberries. I allow them to grow behind my bean trellis, poking their multi-coloured berries through at the sunshine. By the time the beans grow there, I have eaten them all anyway.

Happy summer, neighbours! I hope you enjoy the bounty of Rubus, this year.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

10 Things I am Learning the Hard Way: A Letter to my Teenaged Children

My dear teenaged children,

Sometimes I parent from a place of fear. I snap at you or threaten you with the most dire potential outcomes of your risk-taking endeavors. I'm terrified that you'll face the same hardships I did at your age - or worse. I'm terrified of losing you; of seeing your beautiful faces harden and grow distant. Sometimes, in struggling against my fears, I am not the parent I wish I was, and I know that my apologies don't cut it. Maybe they make it worse. In my heart I know the best I can do is to lead by example, because my advice is the last thing you want. But the remnant of my teenaged self needs me to pass on the things I'm learning the hard way, just so they don't go un-said. Just so I don't feel so helpless at watching you grow up and learn your own life's lessons the hard way.

I am still learning mine. I guess I'll never stop, and ten years down the road I may look back at these and laugh at my ignorance. But here they are, anyway - a snapshot of the things I have learned or am trying to learn at forty years old. May you live well, and may these things come to you more easily than they did to me.

Always adventure. Adventure is what life is made of. Without straying from the path, we'll never make discoveries; never feed our minds and souls and bodies and civilization. I forget all the time that I love adventuring - and then I find myself running wildly into the waves with all my clothes on, and realize I feel free again. Remember all those times we were ridiculous together? I love being ridiculous. And little adventures are important, too. Adventure can be as simple as grabbing a new fruit from a grocery store or laughing hysterically with a dear friend when it's way too late at night. These little adventures keep me going from day to day, but then I still need to feel abandon, which is why I call out our most adventurous friends and family for late-night silliness or school-skipping skating extravaganzas. Always have some of those friends - the friends who will say 'yes!' - and try to be one of those friends, too.

Trust - but not blindly. You want to be one of those people who says 'yes!', but you want to know where your limits are, too, so you don't become the person who leads everyone else into danger. This goes for trusting yourself as well as others. I have both a very easy time believing people, and a very hard time trusting them. This may come from that nasty feeling of having my trust broken so very many times. It sucks to feel like you've been had! But you have to get back up and keep trusting anyway. Because as soon as you don't trust, you can't trust anything. And then the world becomes a very scary place.

Forgive. You will be had. You will be hurt more than you can imagine. And whether you can find fault in yourself, someone else, or circumstances, you have to let it go. Blame is a sickening torture that will hurt you more than it will help. I have spent years of my life blaming people for the things they've done to me, and feeling hurt again and again and again. Some people naturally carry on as if nothing had happened. I'm not good at just shrugging things off and walking away, so I have trained myself to look at everyone from a compassionate perspective. Whether I understand it or not, there is always a deep-seeded reason for whatever has happened. It's not my fault and it's not theirs. It just is. The pain might still be there, but the blame doesn't have to be. And when you find yourself truly at fault - even for blaming others? Forgive yourself too.

Remember that you are loved and appreciated. It's easy to say that I will always love you. And you've heard it so often it probably sounds like background noise. I also know I didn't believe it when my mother told me the same thing. I thought, "yeah - but if you knew how bad I really am, you wouldn't love me anymore...". That was before I had children. Your Nana was right. She also told me that she never understood how much her mother loved her until the day she had me - and the enormity of the love surprised her. I don't know how to make you understand this. I wish I had understood it earlier myself, but it took my having my own children to even begin to grasp how big love really is. So I'll be patient. It's OK if you don't know how much I love you. I want you to go out and be independent, and I will give you a shove sometimes to get you going, but even if you don't feel it in your heart, please remember that in your parents you have a small army at your back, and ready to welcome you home to our embrace in a heartbeat - no matter what.

And you are still your own best friend. I accept that I will never know you as well as you know yourself. And you will - as I continue to do - seek all your life long to find people who truly see you and love you and put up with your beautiful uniquenesses. But none of them will ever know the exact moment that you need a hug. You have to go out and get that yourself. I will continue to try very hard to be there when you need me, but in the same way that a baby learns to self-comfort, you will learn to calm your own fears in the night, to pep-talk yourself before a performance or interview or date, and to look in the mirror and say 'it's going to be all right'. We'll still be the army at your back, but it's you out there on the front lines of your life.

Be you. And don't ever look back. Don't waste energy on relationships with people who make you feel worthless. You really will be OK without them. You come from a long line of people who keep struggling to be the person other people want us to be. Stop. OK? Just stop. It hasn't gotten me anywhere good. And you've seen the fallout in me, because this is something I still struggle with. I hate to say 'do what I say, not what I do' - I know that's not helpful, and you'll follow my actions more than my words, whether you want to or not. But I'm still working on this one. I've let go of friends and family because I couldn't be the person they wanted me to be, and it is still very painful. I can only hope that in seeing me struggle to make these changes, the journey is a little easier for you. You are both stunningly amazing just the way you are, and the way you will become. Please be that person. I am discovering people in my life who truly love me the way I am - and I know you will too.

Go outside. When all of the above are just way too heavy, get the hell out of there!! You don't have to struggle all the time! Remember those times I took you by the hand and just dragged you out into the woods? There are times when that is the only solution, and I don't regret it one bit, even though sometimes you screamed at me when I did it. Go take your own best-friend-self by the hand and take you outside. Sit under a tree, climb a tree, jump in the mud or the sand or the soggy old leaves or the ocean and just listen to the sound of the world. Feel the moss and the bark and the leaves and stones. Taste the air with all of your senses and just be there. Sometimes I take my camera with me, just so I feel like I'm being productive. Ha. Sometimes you have to trick yourself into being outside, but it's worth it. Just go.

Be patient. You never know what you are missing, while running by. I'm still terrible at this, so I set up systems to slow myself down. Sometimes I take other people with me outside, so that I have to wait for them, and in the process discover new things, and peace. I'm terribly impatient with other people. As you know, it takes your Pappa days, weeks, or years to answer questions or make decisions, and I've lost a lot of good times by constantly looking forward to what was ahead; egging and nagging him on instead of just loving where we were in the moment. You have both taught me a lot about patience, just by being my beloved children, and unfortunately, I think I am passing some impatience on to you. Hopefully I will learn patience better before you're grown.

Create. I don't care how you get creative, but do it. Whether you sing, dance, cook, fold carpets into origami or pancakes into drinking cups, expand your mind by playing with it. Creativity has saved my life more often than I really want to tell you.

Love. Thank goodness you are both proficient at this skill. Please ensure you don't lose it. Love can be frightening, and challenging, and just plain painful. Love can tear you to shreds. But if it couldn't, it wouldn't be worth it. Don't ever become afraid to love - everybody and everything. Even the people you would like to blame. Because love really is the answer to everything. Love will lead us through all of the other things I've just talked about. Love will hold us together when we're falling apart. It's life. It's God or religion or salvation, or whatever you want to call it. It's the one-dimensional strings that hold us all together, bound to each other and every other tangible and intangible thing in the universe. You, my beautiful children - in all the good times and the bad times we've known - you taught me that. Thank you.

Love, Mama.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Unschooling to School... AND BACK AGAIN!!

It is with great relief and joy that I finally formally announce that, after two years of independent school experience, we're going back to unschooling. Since we made the decision after spring break, Tali has begun to get his passion back, and both he and Rhiannon are becoming more giddy as the days go by, and as they make exciting plans for the future. Unschooling is not without challenges, of course, and we've been asked a few questions about this decision, so I thought I'd answer them publicly.

How will they graduate?
First of all... they might not graduate! I could easily start listing the many options for unschoolers to achieve highschool graduation, but the technicalities are different depending where you live, so Googling the topic or connecting with local homelearning resource groups would be your best bet if you're interested in this. What I can tell you is that it's OK with me if my kids don't graduate. At least one of them will probably attend a university, because that's what he wants, but both of them are more interested in their long-term life goals and following their passions than in stepping up the ladder. Many careers don't depend on university, and many people benefit from university courses without enrolling or pursuing degrees or certificates. Both of my kids have already followed online university courses for free, simply because they were interested.

The world is changing - it used to be that libraries, universities, and some other institutions were the go-to places for information, knowledge, and success, and only available to the privileged. But it's not that way anymore. The internet has opened those things to everyone. Not only are universities free to attend in an increasing number of countries, but even in countries like ours where they continue to be expensive, they offer ever more and more for free to the public. The internet has made many such resources available to people in remote places, and has provided a venue for connections and conversations that might not otherwise happen. In other words, the richness of learning, development, and ingenuity that used to happen at universities is beginning to spread out via the internet, and I expect that by the time my kids are in their late teens, the campuses of the world will be more like the world wide web.

What if they do choose college or university? 
There will still be some benefits to having physical labs and gathering spaces, of course - both for my physics-obsessed son and my pop-star hopeful daughter. So how will my kids get into such spaces if they choose to? Well, it turns out that unschoolers have some advantages when it comes to university application. There are also lists available of American and Canadian schools that are known to accept homeschooled/unschooled applicants. (I know these lists aren't complete, because our local university, UBC, has definitely accepted unschoolers and is not on that list.) With the growth of unschooling popularity, I can only imagine that the welcoming attitude towards unschooled university applicants will continue to grow, as well. My kids have a little bit of experience with presenting a portfolio, and are both becoming interested in leaving an online trail of their work and innovations, so I have little doubt that their entrance into universities - should they choose to go that route - will be a natural step on that pathway, when the time comes.

In 2011 Peter Gray did an interesting survey of grown unschoolers' journeys into the worlds of post-secondary schooling and careers. Most interesting to me was that it appears to make a noticeable difference whether kids were fully unschooled or only partially unschooled - and possibly not in the ways you might guess: Psychology Today article.

Don't they need a broader influence?
It's definitely true that unschoolers can miss out on all the specific influences and ideas that come from big schools - unless they attend one, of course. And I have known a couple of unschooling families who stuck very close to their own small circle of friends and activities, and whose kids may indeed have had a narrower view of the world than some others. But this kind of narrow view can be taken by schooling families, as well, and in my opinion has nothing to do with unschooling. I know both unschooling and schooling families who make an effort to experience many varied things, and we do this ourselves, too. I think it's essential that kids have freedom to choose their own paths, and with that freedom they need to have doors opened for them.

In order to open those doors for our kids we include them in almost everything we do (to the detriment of parents-only dates, unfortunately), and we allow them a lot of freedom to explore in the world and online. To keep them safe online, we have installed wired internet service in our home, and it's not available in their bedrooms. They understand that it's not because we don't trust them, but because we want the internet to be a public thing in our home. It keeps all of us accountable and safe. And plus - it means they often discover new things while reading over our shoulders! To keep them safe in their physical travels, we've accompanied them on bus-trips (once even observing from afar as they made their way through the slightly complicated city bus routes and transfers), to help them develop safe behaviour and confidence out there. After that we just clasp our hands together as all parents do and hope with all our hearts they make it through life relatively unscathed!

What about socialization?
Ah, yes. Well... socializing, at the moment, is the one true challenge of unschooling. At least in our small community it is. There are very few kids our kids' age who are free to socialize during the week, and there's still a small but not insignificant amount of derision from community members around our choices.

Which brings me to my terminology gripe, and a much bigger issue. "Socialization" means "to socialize" ... as if it is a thing one does to one's children. Like we might bastardize or customize or equalize them. My kids don't need me to socialize them. Being social is human nature. And they're different in the way they do that! My daughter is passionate about spending time with friends. She has many friends and she thinks about them all the time; she looks at most things in life through a social lens. My son would rather process things alone. He has a few very treasured friends - the sort of friends who are like cousins to him, even when he doesn't see them for years. He appears to be very lonely, sometimes, and sometimes he even feels lonely. But going to school for two years has made him lonelier. And that's the bigger issue.

Tali went to school because we wanted him to have more social interaction. We thought that his penchant for spending time alone or just with the family was making him miserable, and school would solve that. So he chose a lovely little school where he already knew a few of the kids, and his uncle is one of the teachers. It's a good school with high moral standards. He never faces the kind of frightening bullying that he has encountered in passing at other, bigger schools. The teachers and some of the other kids are thoughtful and supportive. And things were all right for a while. But gradually Tali's own feelings changed, until despite spending five days a week in a large group of kids, he now feels that he doesn't have any friends. He doesn't feel anymore that he's happy to be the person he is, but that there is something inferior about him, in the way he exists in the world. I remember that feeling very well. That feeling is the reason we chose to unschool in the first place. That is the feeling from being at the bottom of the social heap. And it is nurtured by the default situation of school.

A school of kids is like a school of fish: a homogeneous group of little beings, seen by the powers that be as a whole. Of course the teachers see the individual students, and the students see the individuality in each other, but the school has to make choices that benefit the whole. So the grade sevens go with the grade sevens to all the same classes, and the grade eights go with the other grade eights to the other classes, and at lunch time they go outside for lunch, but it's difficult for the two groups to merge because they've been separate in all the other activities. Outside at lunch, or in the corners of the progressively free-range classrooms, kids grapple with the social ladder, and take every possible shortcut to the top. They passively and not-so-passively intimidate and threaten each other; they compare their successes and failures, and they turn their backs on the kids they're using as rungs for climbing up on. In class-time, kids are evaluated and graded, which separates them into further categories, and no matter how unique they are, and no matter how much effort the teachers put into celebrating their individualities and strengths, they will still be part of the whole, and they will know where they sit on the social ladder. To some extent this happens in the adult world as well, but we have the freedom to leave the situations that don't serve our needs. At school kids don't have this freedom. Because they exist as a school of children.

So here we are, nine years into our unschooling journey, and now I can finally say we are going to "un-school". My kids never had to un-school, before, because they had never been to school. We parents certainly un-schooled ourselves and will always be doing so. But now that our son has fully participated in one of the best schools our region has to offer, he will also have the opportunity to un-school himself.

Of course, his journey will be much simpler, because he's not forging a new path; just making his way back to a path he has traveled, before. And he's doing it with great delight. He has already made some plans for next year - plans that will give him opportunities to be social with other teens! And he has begun countless new projects as the sparks of curiosity and creativity that drove him during the many years before school seem to have reignited.

stuff my kids are doing...

Since we committed to go back to unschooling again, both kids are much more inspired about life, and both doing things I'm proud of. So... how about a bit of kvelling!?

Click to enlarge and read this. He made this in school while he was supposed to be working on a group project about riverside development. He diverged...
And here's a group of beautiful friends making their first music video.

Also, Rhiannon is still healing from her wound. Two days ago (after 21 days!) a stick delivered itself out of her knee, and yesterday she got her stitches out. The wound isn't closed yet, and she has to soak it at least twice a day, but she's much more comfortable now, and can do pretty much anything, although she's using crutches for longer walks.

She is also changing her hairstyle. I promised her this as a sort of indulgence after the protracted injury and recovery and many boring hospital days. Stay tuned! It will be rather unique!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

how and why to use technology in a forest school

One of the draws of forest schools is the fact that many are 'unplugged'. At a time when our culture is becoming exponentially more digitally connected, we're noticing some pitfalls of being too connected. We are seeking ways to ground our thoughts and experiences, often literally by going out on the land and leaving technological devices behind.
I think this is great, but I also think technology has a place in forest schools.

At Wild Art you'll definitely notice fewer electronic devices, which isn't even so much of an expressed rule as a matter of practicality when we're traipsing around over logs, through creeks and swamps, and up and down trees. We're too busy using our senses to bother with devices that require hands and mental focus. But there are exceptions.

It's important to me that wilderness is not just an escape from the rest of our lives, but that it is integral to our lives. That means that we have to let wilderness into our homes and technology from our homes into the wilderness. This way our thoughts and learning have no boundaries.

At Wild Art, a whole-world view and self-direction are paramount. Of all the things I hope people will learn at Wild Art, I hope most that they leave with a sense that their own engagement with the world matters. And technology is a part of our world. Banning it would be futile, and worse still, would force it into dark corners, where there is little support. So just as I welcome any conversation topic during the time we share together, I welcome technology.

Watches, visual aids, cell-phones and cameras are by far the most common devices among the kids I work with. Watches allow the kids to keep track of their own time, and sometimes help them understand the world around them (movement of the earth; weather, and even reflection and light as they play with the sun bouncing off their wrists). Visual aids are usually brought by me. I have a nice pair of binoculars, and flashlights are sometimes helpful, but the best of them is a pocket-sized 60x microscope that I carry around for looking at anything and everything that suits our fancy. Cell phones aren't that common. Many kids have them, but leave them behind for fear of damaging or losing them in the woods. I don't have one myself, and although occasionally someone pulls one out to check the time, take a photo or arrange a ride home, I rarely see them. I think that reception is pretty poor when we're in the forest out here, anyway. And cameras.

I love cameras. I document Wild Art days myself at least once a month, and sometimes the kids get involved with cameras, too. Getting new perspectives on the things we look at is always a great way to engage, and using cameras can be an excellent way to find and explore new vantage points. Camera-use also often means thinking about communication: Not only does it matter what we are communicating with our photos, but how does the photo-set up influence the viewer, and how does our own perspective influence the photo? All of these questions (and many others) come up and scatter widely into other areas of life. Even just the social interactions that arise from sharing our vantage points, our technological ideas and understanding, and our creativity are valuable. And this is all when the technology is on the side. What about when it's at the core of the group's inquiry?

Recently one of the Wild Art groups made a movie. It was a natural path to take, since their engagement had been mostly social, comedic, and with a lot of talk about video games they had been playing at home. So I embraced it and suggested movie-making. They spent the next four weeks developing and filming their funny idea, and this is the result:

(Thanks to these wonderful teens for allowing me to share their movie!)

They also presented their movie in the woods, using a projector, a king-size sheet, about a hundred and fifty feet of extension cords, and some ropes, sticks and rocks to set it all up. It seemed to me like a fabulous combination of technology and wilderness.

But what about the wilderness? Doesn't all this technology take away from our engagement with it? Maybe. But it also deepens our engagement. When we work and live in the wilderness, we can't help but be deeply familiar with it. Just like you know the feeling of your favourite pillow under your head, you know the different feelings of sitting on various types of moss and bark if you've spent enough time doing so. You know what species of tree branches will work best to hold up your bed-sheet movie screen, and what age of fern-fronds will be strong enough to tie a knot with. You know which twigs you can break off for convenience, and which are still alive and better left alone. You not only become familiar with the species of plants, insects and other animals that you cross paths with in the wild, but you become aware of their habits, their habitat, and the way these things matter and intersect with your own life. You will be an integral, engaged, and conscientious part of the world. And after all, isn't that what we use technology for?

Monday, May 16, 2016

when your eyes are bigger than your stomach...

Hmmm... what shall I find for a snack today...?

Oh hello. What's this? I see a little cat.


Holy giant snack!

Hey little kitty. Did you see me fly?

Check out this.

I'll just sit on this low little stump over here and turn my back to you. Really I'm harmless.

It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.


La la la...

Oh hello. You're still there.


Ah! Vulture! Help!

Heh heh heh...

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Family Update

As you may know, this blog is partly our way of keeping connected with family, so I thought I'd update on our personal lives at the moment. Sort of a Christmas-Letter-in-May. The biggest news this week is Rhiannon's injury. She fell on a log last Monday and gored her knee quite badly. She has been in town having stitches or wound care and IV antibiotics every day since then. Today is the first day she won't spend hours in the hospital. We have very sensitive systems (and skin!) in our family, and she not only got a raging infection from the wound, but then had reactions to antibiotics, wound-dressing tape, and the IV (hence why she had to have two IV's at one point). Poor Annie. It's been a bit of a long haul for her. But spending so much time in the emergency first aid department allowed us some perspective, at least, in seeing that by comparison with some other people, her situation is not so severe, and she's managing quite well, under the circumstances. Just yesterday she finally had her IV out, and is increasingly able to hold her leg up enough to get around on crutches. Today we're going to try going to the community choir concert!

This experience has been humbling. I have been extremely grateful for the care she's received from our doctor (who spent about 40 minutes cleaning and picking wood out of a very large, gruesome wound, and then stitching it up again), two of our local ambulance crew, plus Brian for the water taxi ride, and a large collection of ambulance attendants, nurses and doctors at the hospital who have cared for her with thoughtfulness and sensitivity for her young age and fears. As a bonus, she has learned a lot about physiology and medicine, and is now doing her own wound-care, at home. This experience is an excellent learning opportunity for all of us, and also a great way to gain some perspective on both our privilege and fortune to be who we are, living where and as we do.

So Rhiannon is missing a couple of weeks of school, which (aside from the constant sitting down and computer use) is a nice preparation for our next news: We're going back to unschooling next year! Rhiannon is still desperate to join the local private school that Tali has been attending, but they have no space for her. And Tali is thrilled to be leaving. He can't wait to have his time to himself again, and to get back to his many passions and experiments. We're going to make a concerted effort to find him some lab science classes to attend, next year. Rhiannon is still trying to figure out how best to spend more time with her friends, and is also diligently training herself to become a pop singer.

As for us adults, I am busy with teaching and getting the kids through their many spring activities (plus this unexpected hospital adventure, of course). And Markus is busily trying to finish the new kitchen before his June vacation, when he'll tear out the old kitchen and bathroom and replace them with a fresh new rot-free section of house. After that I believe our whole house will finally be free from rot and mold! We're pretty excited about that, and hold enormous gratitude for Markus' dedication, since for the past few years he's given up almost every single day that he didn't have to work to repairing this old house. We're also looking forward to a time (hopefully less than a year away!) when we do not live among heaps and stacks of construction materials and misplaced household items.

In the bigger picture, it's early May and we're already into a drought. The well hasn't gone dry yet, but that has something to do with the fact that my parents have added a pump to the pond and are watering much of their garden from that instead of their well. Despite the dry weather, we do have some vegetables coming up, and hope to eat a good amount from our own garden for the next few months. It's the bumps and pitfalls that remind us how beautiful life is; how lucky we are, and how treasured are the people who care for us.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight: Maple Blossoms

As published in the Bowen Bulletin, April 27, 2016:

Last year for the Earth Day Bulletin issue I began a series called “Earth Day Every Day”, where I explored the island and talked about my discoveries. That year has come full circle, and it's time for this series to evolve, too. I'd like to share some foraging delights with you! So, every couple of months for the next year, I'll explore a seasonal wild food opportunity that we can easily find here on Bowen.

One of the most iconic and bountiful plants we have here is the bigleaf maple. As you walk through the springtime coniferous forest you can see a maple a long way off, as it's brilliant leaves catch and hold the sunlight – chartreuse against the deeper greens of hemlock, cedar, fir and spruce. Even its bulky-looking trunk and often sprawling limbs seem to burst with vivid colour: In early- to mid-spring the moss that covers them is a vibrant rich green, punctuated only with the deep grey-brown and white of the bark, and sometimes with haphazard fields of licorice fern.

Look out to the ends of those sprawling branches, reaching umbrella-like over your head, and if you're there at the right moment you'll see it's blossoms. Maples' blooming times vary according to their geographic location, elevation, and situation in the forest. Although as I write this most of our local maples have finished blooming for the year, if you explore a bit you're likely to find a few still going strong.

A maple blossom cluster is referred to as a raceme, due to the fact that many flowers hang off a central axis (or stem) at approximately equal lengths and distances. The flowers develop first at the point closest to the branch, and successively out to the end of the raceme. Therefore, if you pick a raceme at the height of its development and sample it at various points along the stem, you'll notice that it has various different flavours. (Note: Maples are as delicious to insects as they are to humans! Before you eat it, check the blossom for flies, aphids, ants, etc. and knock them off.) Now start tasting. Any closed or barely-open flowers near the end will have a bitter, astringent taste, due to the oxalic acid which they and many other fresh wild greens contain. Further along, both the stem and the blossoms lose this sharp flavour, and have a much more pleasant, mild taste. The flowers that are in their prime even have a slight sweetness, and this is absolutely delicious in salads! Further up, and nearer the branch, the stem becomes progressively tougher, and the flowers less flavourful. Eventually, where the two pistils in the flowers have turned brown, the flowers will taste very bland, and by the time the whole flower begins shrinking, it's more like dried leaves – not worth eating!

So now that you've familiarized yourself with all the different flavours of the maple blossom... what to do with it? Some people stir-fry them. I've heard of people battering and deep-frying them, too, but I prefer to taste them in all their glory: quiche, rice-wraps or salad!

For a quiche, simply prepare a good savoury butter crust, steam some maple blossoms until they're wilted, and fill the crust with a mixture of the blossoms and some other sweet or mild vegetable such as fennel, mild celery, or spinach. Mix up some eggs, milk, and a bit of sea salt, and pour it over. Cheese is always an option, but I find it overpowers the maple blossoms in this case and prefer to leave it out. Bake and enjoy!

Wraps are as diverse as they are easy. Whether you use pitas, tortillas, nori or rice paper, fill it with some sweet rice, maple blossoms, and a dressing you love. It can be quick and dirty or absolutely elegant, depending on your desire and presentation.

My favourite for last: Salad! Take out the most delicious section of the racemes, and fill your salad bowl half-full of these – flowers, stem, and all. I break the stem into sections approximately one inch long. Now make up the rest of the salad with whatever mild greens you like. Butter lettuce works well, but so do many other seasonal wild plants such as salmonberry or dandelion petals, bitter-cress, or miner's lettuce. If you grow kale year-round in your garden, it may blossom at the same time as local maples, and kale flowers are also a delicious and beautiful addition. I like to make a dressing of grape seed oil, maple syrup, and lemon juice, as well as sometimes a little salt or wholegrain mustard, depending on the ingredients in my salad. Experiment to year heart's delight, and enjoy! I hope you love maple blossoms as much as I do.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Philanthropy Project

Selfie in his favourite climbing tree.
One fabulous outcome of my son Taliesin's school experience this year was the philanthropy project. The kids were basically given free range to support a cause that is important to them, in any way they feel like! They first did some personal inquiry to decide what moved them, then collaborated with other kids with similar interests (where applicable) to decide how to support the causes they chose.

Taliesin had no doubts about the cause closest to his heart: trees. He's been passionately protective of trees since he was a baby, and would scream inconsolably when they fell or when they were cut down. Now he's also been researching plant and tree communication for quite a while, and has various little experimental gardens around the house. It's no wonder, since two of his grandfathers are deeply engaged with plants and trees, and luckily he has support with his passion.

Taliesin's science fair project this year (also self-directed but facilitated by the lovely Pam, his science teacher), was a hand-built polygraph with which he tested various plants' response to stimuli (touch, heat, burning, sounds, and thoughts).
So to protect trees, he decided to raise money to support the Ancient Forest Alliance. He busked with his accordion on various occasions in the city, once walking over to the mainland himself, and other times chauffeured further afield by his camera-toting parents. He had some stiff competition: seasoned musicians and (even more daunting) our younger, charming piano-playing friend at the same time as an enormous blue-tongued chow chow, whose apparent fame and stage presence drew massive crowds. But Taliesin was undaunted. He noticed that people appreciated his music, and told me a few times that even if he wasn't making money, it was worth it just to feel he had made people happy. He had some wonderful audiences, too, including many devoted child fans, some of whom also tried out the accordion, a few accordion players, people who thanked him many times for bringing joy to their village, a woman who called him over to her balcony to toss him ten dollars, and even a man who danced a folk dance and sang along... to something Taliesin swears was improv!

For his efforts, Taliesin made a total of $150 for his school field trip (five days on a tall ship with SALTS!), plus 295.25 to donate to the Ancient Forest Alliance.

He brought the change to the bank, where he was given coin rollers, and rolled most of it up before taking it to the AFA.

At the Ancient Forest Alliance office, he proudly presented his donation, which apparently is quite a big one, and Ken, TJ and Joan not only engaged him in some great conversation about the things he's so passionate about, but also...

... sent along some swag, which he plans to disperse widely, spreading support for the cause that means so much to him.
I would like to express my gratitude to Island Pacific School, and to his teacher Victoria for spearheading and supporting this philanthropy project. It was not only a fabulous opportunity for the kids to learn about philanthropy, but to make meaningful personal connections in the fields they're interested in, and to make a real positive difference in their world. And it was self-directed, to boot! Well done, IPS! And thank you.

I am also grateful to the wonderful folks at the Ancient Forest Alliance for engaging Taliesin so beautifully in this connection. The work you do is very important to him (and to all of us!), and you have done an amazing job of encouraging a teen to follow in your footsteps.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Barefoot Education

So our barefoot day started like this. It's always easier to climb a tree barefoot... the contact of our skin against the bark gives us traction, and while our feet are out of sight we can feel our way around the trunk and branches to find the best and safest footholds.

Once they were down from the tree, they left their boots behind and happened upon a patch of mud. The fragrance of the mud as it squished slightly grainy between their toes was powerful - compared by the kids to poop and compost.

And the feeling of the grass, all dry and sunny but with a soft spongy wetness as the kids' weight pushed water up from beneath to rinse the bottom of their muddy feet.

We thought we'd go check out the flooded forest we'd explored last January, and the kids took a little detour to access it via the creek. (You know... because the other route was too dry!) Getting to the creek required the kids picking their way between prickly salmonberry and holly on the ground, watching carefully for dog and deer poop, and maneuvering between hard branches, sharp reeds and soft muddy holes.

The previously-flooded forest is now mostly dry, but green all over with the soft cool leaves and pungent blossoms of skunk cabbage (AKA swamp lantern, though we don't bother with that term). There was a near injury here, as one of the kids stepped hard on the point of a buried stick in the mud. Luckily it was a bloodless injury, and the play continued.

Platforms, shelves, shops, mats, and all manner of other things were built, mostly composed of sticks, skunk cabbage, and mud.

Various interesting footprints (both human and animal) were discovered, as well as frogs, fresh water shrimp, caddisfly larvae, water beetles, a centipede, and many varied textures and fluidities of mud.

Did I say mud? Wet mud and dry mud.

Truffle-like mud.

And even some beaver-made chips, with a dry wavy texture and a crumply kind of feeling when you happen to walk across them in your bare feet.
There was everything a person could need for exploration and discovery. This is a place this group has visited at least a couple of times this year (and the meadow and creek before it, many, MANY times...), but it changes every day; the sights, the sounds, the lives of plants and animals, and the feeling of it all between our toes.

 Going barefoot is something I find very important. Maybe not in the coldest months, but absolutely when the weather is (barely) warm enough, and we're on a mission of exploration. Has it ever occurred to you how many things we miss as we walk over them with the thick soles of our shoes, unaware? How many insects and plants do we crush? How many different types of mud to we pass over without a second thought? We are missing out!

I often remind the kids to think of all the types of life that are under their feet at any moment, but I see my words drift by them like breeze. The feeling of the world under their feet - mucking and squishing and poking and scraping - doesn't drift by. It's a sensation they can't ignore. Exploring the world in bare feet makes it necessary to be engaged with the rich diversity we're walking on. Even in the city, bare feet make us aware of the various types of man-made surfaces we traverse, and the many activities that may have happened there (is it really clean enough to wear bare feet?). Our bare feet literally get us down and dirty with the world. And that, to me, is the best place to be for learning about the world.

Dr. Kacie Flegal explains that "Feet are one of the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, the feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column! ... It is never too late to encourage the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in our own bodies as we continue to grow new neural connections, even as we age. Often, it is the proprioceptive and vestibular systems that become inhibited as adults. We lose balance and focus in our bodies and our lives and, as a result, may lose profound connections to our environment, ourselves, and other people."

So take off your shoes and run outside! Maybe climb a tree - maybe jump in a creek or a gloriously muddy spot. Maybe walk all tickly through the long meadow grass. The world is so richly beautiful, and just waiting for us to know it!

Sunday, April 3, 2016


We have a cultural tradition of celebrating people after they die - and why not? But I think it's important to celebrate people while they are alive. I want the people I care about to know how important they are to me every single day of their lives. So Pappa turns seventy, today, and there's no better time than the present to write a bit about how much he means to me. How do you measure something that has always been there? How do you describe something that is so central to everything that without it everything changes? 
I know what it's like to be without Pappa. When I was little, he was away often, working in the bush as a forester, and I missed him terribly while he was away. I used to sleep with pieces of his clothing, and jump to the phone when it rang, in case it was Pappa calling on a radio phone and I could get to hear his voice before handing the phone over to Mum. I wanted to say "I love you Pappa" and hear him say "yes, Em" and smile audibly, which was the way he said he loved me too. I just wanted to remember that I had him in the world.

I remember the day I began calling him Pappa. I had always called him Hardy, before that, since he was my step-father, and that's how I had known him before we married him. (Yes *we* married him. My mother asked my permission first, and included me in the wedding.) But eventually I had a brother, who was calling him Pappa, and one day as I was standing in the kitchen, drying my hands at the dish towel by the big window, Mum said that Hardy would really like it if I called him Pappa, too. I imagine I was about five, and I remember thinking of the word: how strange it felt to say it, and how it didn't sound at all like the man I knew as my father. But I tried it out. I walked over to him and said "Pappa" like maybe my mouth was broken, and he behaved as though nothing interesting had happened at all. He's like that. He takes things in stride that to me seem to turn the world upside down.

And things that turn Pappa's world upside down bewilder me. We have a very hard time getting along sometimes. Let's not pretend everything is peachy. I'm extremely sensitive, and he likes strong people. He criticizes me and I turn on him with venom. I imagine he would like me to leave this paragraph out, and I can't write without telling the whole story. He's sensitive, too, of course, and we break each other's hearts all the time. But no matter how much we argue or don't understand each other; no matter how much he imagines I don't care or I imagine he dislikes me, there will always come a day when we find each other present at a time compassion is truly deeply needed, and we can give that to each other. Pappa will say "Like a cuppa tea?" Or he will say nothing at all and hug me strongly like he does. Or he will look in my eyes and say "I'm scared", and I will see his eyes rimmed pink with fear, and he'll accept a hug just until it's time to move onto something more pleasant. It's good to have someone who can walk the hard walk of vulnerability with you when it needs to be done.

Pappa didn't have to be my father. He just was. Throughout my childhood he was there for me at the times I needed him and at the times I didn't want him. He did things that made me very angry in his efforts to protect me (like being very rude to (beloved) boyfriends, and cutting down dangerous (beloved) trees...). He protected my mother fearlessly - even from me, which was not to his benefit, most of the time, but it made me love him more. He shows me consistently that he will stand for those he loves.

I love fearlessly because of Pappa. He chose to love me as his daughter. And he still does. He made that commitment and then followed through like it wasn't a choice at all. Love is like that. 

Thank you for all the love and stability that you are to me, Pappa. Thank you for being mine.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Unschooling to School: Cooperation vs. Competition

You might have noticed a distinct lack of reporting on this "Unschooling to School" adventure we're on. Both of the kids are still enrolled with school programs, and both still choosing to be there. But I'm not happy. I decided it was time to be honest about it on this blog. I don't want to defame the programs they're enrolled in, both of which are run by passionate and caring teachers, so I am extremely cautious in how I word this:

The schools aren't the problem; our cultural parenting is the problem. Schools just teach in the way we expect them to.  

Our culture celebrates competition, dominance and heroism, while as parents we feel successful when our children learn to fit into tightly defined molds and in grading and schooling them we compel them not to deviate. 

This dichotomy sets all of them up for either extravagant rebellion, spectacular success, heads-down drudgery, or catastrophic failure. Sounds extreme, but that's just because most of us have graduated from this system and are still aiming for the drudgery. In both my kids' cases, the programs they're attending are trying very hard to work around the provincial requirements in order to provide an experience for the kids that is more wholistic and more engaging than what the provincial learning outcomes indicate. Even the Province is attempting to make a change, and will be implementing new, more wholistic learning outcomes this coming year. But as parents we still want to see that our kids are measuring up. We want them to compete (and win!). We want them to get in there with all the other parents' competing little geniuses - and WIN, goddammit! We want the schools to make them win. And that situation means that a school is a place where people win and lose. Grades, tests, contests, and teachers' expectations are all venues for our little dears to step up and prove themselves as better than all the rest... or to fail at life. That is an expression my kid has learned at school this year.

My son got a paper back from his teacher, who happens to be well-known for his amazing views on and implementation of education. And my son couldn't understand why he should change a sentence that had nothing wrong with it grammatically, and that expressed what he wanted it to express. The teacher had criticized him for not making suggested changes, and I said to him, "You have a choice. You can either make the change without questioning it, or ask him why, or not make the change and explain your reasons in the margin." He looked at me with a look of bewilderment and stress. He was scared to speak up for his beliefs. In that moment I saw that his experience of school has robbed him of his confidence. To me that is tragic.

My son now questions all of his own ideas. He writes them off as not-good-enough, or impossible. He used to see questions as opportunities to talk about things he cared about, but now often feels terrified when people ask him questions - as if they are already judging his response. So, increasingly, he chooses not to speak at all. The kid who was uber popular when he first joined the school now feels alone in the same group of peers. I've told him that that feeling comes from his own lack of confidence, but that lack of confidence is nurtured by the competition that determines his every move.

My daughter has a far more relaxed classroom. But I see the effects on her, too. She used to excitedly write down every song, story and poem that entered her mind, sharing them either in her self-published magazine or sending them to Cricket. Recently she has begun doubting herself - looking for skills that will fit better into her classroom expectations rather than those she is passionate about.

So here we are at the end of spring break, and I smell the fresh wind of change, again. My daughter has decided to become a pop star and has spent this bounty of spare time tearing her fingers up from practicing guitar for multiple hours every day. My son has found a renewed interest in sciences, and spent the entire latter half of spring break researching physics and dabbling in electronics, chemistry and programming. He also has taken the half-assed science fair project he made for his school science fair to a much higher standard for the bigger science fair he's taking it to next week. He did this not because he was asked to, but because he has found a reason to care about it. Now, to be honest - he might not be going to that science fair if his teacher hadn't chosen him to go - it was something of a competition he won to be among the school's entries in this fair, and the school is paying for it. I don't pretend for a moment that this competitive situation isn't benefiting him in this case.

It's the overall picture that bothers me. What if, instead of feeling afraid that their contributions might be worthless, or feeling glorified that they beat out some other kids to be seen, our kids could just share? The experience of sharing their work with no strings or expectations attached would give them real world feedback from people with genuine interest in their ideas. They could learn from those experiences about what went well for them and what didn't; what felt satisfying and what they might want to pursue further. I am imagining open non-competitive expos - maybe on different topics. I imagine spaces full of enthusiasm and innovation, where everyone goes away feeling valued. You don't feel valued from winning a contest as much as you do from sharing with people who are genuinely interested in hearing and sharing with you. In such situations there will be people who discover that their talents or passions are different than they expected, but this will happen through their own judgements rather than because of the judgements of others.

She had a problem: she wants to listen to her music while walking, but not be shut off from the world by wearing earphones. So they got together to solve the problem, and using some salvaged speakers and other parts, he is trying to create a little wearable speaker for her mp3 player, while she provides tea, snacks, input and musical entertainment. Most awesome cooperative spring break project.

I know some people will tell me (because I've heard it so often before) that this notion of non-competition is useless - that our kids need to learn to win because that's what the real world is like. They need to learn to fight for their goals or they'll never achieve them. The real world is cold and cruel, and only the fittest survive. Yeah, well... what if we changed that? What if we made our real world a place where everyone had value? I believe in that. I have seen in happen in many smaller organizations that happened to (by chance or design) have a lack of competition and judgement. I want that world for my children, and I want that world for me.

I'll finish with some remarks from evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris. Watch the video at the bottom for more details and visuals.
"We have a marvelous example, in our own bodies, of a highly-evolved, decentralized, cooperative economy, which communes as well as communicating. It uses direct transmission of information and it is completely transparent. The biggest discovery I ever made in evolution was to discover what I call the maturation cycle that permeates all of evolution - that any species has to go through a juvenile or youthful phase, in which is has to acquire as much territory and resources as it can, and multiply as fast as it can, and elbow others out of the way, and establish itself in its place on the planet. And eventually, it gets too energy expensive to elbow the others out. The competition becomes very very expensive. And there comes a point at which there seems to be a maturation process in which the species discovers the advantages of cooperation - that cooperation is much less energy consumptive, so that you have lots more energy to use in being creative in friendly ways with others. When they finally reach the mature phase, having solved both global hunger and global pollution, they start building cooperatives with a division of labour, and every different kind of bacterium gives some of its DNA into a central library we call the nucleus, which then binds them to living forever in that cell. And so these cooperatives are actually new on the planet and have to go through their own maturation. And it takes another billion years, after two billion years to reach the stage of those cooperatives, another billion years they're going through their youthful phase - same kind of behaviour - until they reach maturation and form multi-celled creatures. Those, to me, are the two biggest steps that ever happened in evolution: the formation of the nucleated cell and the formation of the multi-celled creatures from them. We, of course, are multi-celled creatures. We are now, as humans, going through our own juvenile phase, into maturation." ... "We're now at the second time when this empire-building phase has become too energy expensive. We've reached planetary limits in using up resources and all kinds of things as we well know. We've created a perfect storm of crises and we've got to grow up. It's as simple as that. It's time for humans to reach the mature cooperative phase. We need not the hero's journey myth that brought us to where we are now - the adventure story - but a story of cooperation."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter with Allergies!

We've been having a lovely day and I thought I would share some of the successes. Now that we have a bunch of food restrictions, holidays like this one are particularly challenging, since I want both kids not to feel like they're missing out. So this Easter was a collection of traditions and experiments and I thought I'd share it.

Our son is allergic to wheats and various other grains as well as eggs, soy, and beans. Luckily... the Easter Bunny has access to locally-crafted soy-free chocolate eggs, thanks to our amazing local chocolaterie, Cocoa West. But we all like to have an egg for breakfast, and that is the one food that our son dearly misses. So for the past few years I've been making him "bacon eggs"... which consist of potatoes, apple, sausage and herb-stuffed woven natural bacon.

Our daughter is on a strict auto-immune diet to heal her Hashimoto's disease... which unfortunately includes no grains at all, and no sugar! Not even honey. Needless to say, the Easter Bunny's chocolates are not sugar-free. So this year we improvised on those, as well! I based her alternative Easter Eggs (right) on this recipe by Sami Bloom.

And the wheat-eaters in the family do love their traditional hot cross buns, so my mother has obliged once again with a delicacy that smelled delicious. Rounded out with some freshly-invented coconut/almond "hot no-cross buns", some spring flowers and the beautiful eggs the kids dyed with friends yesterday, this was both a beautiful and delicious Easter breakfast. Now onto a dinner of lamb, wild maple blossom salad, and fresh-picked wild nettles. Happy Spring, beautiful world!