Sunday, February 12, 2017

Romance for the Whole Family

These beautiful bulbs from my friend gave us weeks of joy.
I come from a family where Valentines day was all about the family. Some of my earliest treasured memories were a heart-shaped box full of chocolate almond bark and a white rose from my Pappa (and a red one for my Mum), beautiful Valentines dinners and loving messages in cards from my Mum, the funniest valentine ever from my brother, the comedy of which has lasted into our adulthood, and special heart-shaped cards from my Dad, who saved them for as long as it took for me to visit him again after Valentines. Except when he mailed them.

Due to some losses in our family, as well as big life-changes and living in a construction site, my household has lost its romance in the last few years, and it's been easy to slip out of the habits that once kept us tight and together. I woke up a couple of weeks ago and realized the only music we'd been hearing for a year or so was our daughter's pop music. The only candles we lit were during power outages, and the only time we celebrated each other was in the presence of others. A special evening with just the four of us was often more riddled with frustration and bickering than with joy. Is it because my kids are teens now? Is it because I've lost the ability to hold the family in love? Have we all just lost our joie de vivre?

So we began reading to each other again. My pair of teens loved the idea of sharing their favourite books with us, and it's been pleasant. We all climb in the big bed and take turns reading (except when tired parents fall asleep... apparently this doesn't change as the kids get older). But the beauty of that evening commune hasn't spread into the rest of our days. So one day I asked my husband to put on some nice music. His music. He put on the soundtrack to the Mission. The kids were perplexed, but they did seem happier. I put a candle on the table and my son lit it joyfully. It took so little to bring our dinnertime back to a loving place. But there it was. Four of us sitting in a shared romantic moment again. Bickering begone!

Sometimes the romance comes in a shared cup of tea; a little outing in the wind or rain or snow or sunshine, or some roasted campfire potatoes and simply laughing at the silliness of life.

It's not a permanent solution. The emotional lives of teens are turbulent, regardless, and we're still living in a constant state of upheaval. But the injection of a little romance into our daily lives does seem to be helping. Even just lighting a candle and having a bath by myself has helped. It allows me to emerge from the tub feeling much more pleasant than when I entered it, and most importantly, that pleasantness is reflected back from my children.

I used to be happier, and my children remember that time. They nostalgically remind me of the times I used to wear skirts and dance and sing in the house. They long for candlelit dinners and beach fires. Despite being teens now, with their own agendas and busy lives, they are longing for the romance we have lost.

Romance is part of what keeps us engaged in our relationships. And it's like a water wheel. The water falls in from the top, pushing the thing to keep going and to power everything else. But you have to keep dropping a little in from the top, or it will slow to a stop, and everything that's powered by that wheel will stop too.

Here are some of the little things that used to keep the romance going for our family, and which we'll try to get back into again:

Walks in the wilderness: Obviously this is the most life-giving treat you can give to yourself and your loved-ones. Even if you can't find time to do it as a family, just going with a friend or alone is so nourishing. I have been joining my Mum on her dog-walks sometimes recently, and no matter what I have given up to spend that time with her, I have always returned feeling the shared walk was worth it.

Flowers in the house: For the inevitable times when you can't be in the wilderness, bring some inside! Whether beautiful bulbs like those my friend gave me (photo above), some fresh-cut budding branches from outside, or a fortuitously-blossoming houseplant, flowers bring both colour and a feeling of life into our living space.

Music: Play it, sing it, listen to it, or go out and experience it in a group. Just let it feed your family's soul. Music allows us to open our hearts even when they have been closed for years.

Fire: Candles on the table, a lantern in the bathroom, a bonfire in the back yard or a late night beach fire with friends; in the middle of winter roast treats on skewers in front of an open wood stove or over a candle! Fire has a way of warming our hearts and making it easier to give and accept love.

Decorate! Similar to bringing flowers inside, having small visual treats in the house (or car or yard or even your child's lunch) infuses joy into our minds' wandering as we notice them. And, like the water wheel, it's important to keep feeding it. Some people have a seasonal table or a shelf or wall whose decorations get refreshed. All romance needs refreshing once in a while!

Food: I'm not always up for making a fancy meal, but I try to make our meal beautiful at least once a week. I figure if we're happy just looking at the food, we'll be more open to its nourishment, and to enjoy the time we spend eating it together.

Happy Valentines Day! May every day of the year be infused with some romance, may your waterwheel keep spinning and the love you give keep coming back to you.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Mystery by the Creek - Solved!

On a nearly-sunny January afternoon, I and a group of Wild Art kids stumbled upon something we'd never seen before: About twenty little round calciferous half-spheres, deposited a few meters away from a creek. Not exactly uniform but almost, the little things were approximately 8mm diameter, and seemed similar to sand dollar skeletons. They looked a little like covered buttons. However, when we broke one open, the inside appeared to be solid, comprised of pinkish calcium carbonate. As for other clues in the area, the half-spheres were found on a bit of pristine forest floor, surrounded by needles and cones, about a meter or so above the flood-level of the creek. The only other item of note in the area was the claw of a signal crayfish. We puzzled about it for quite a while, and took a few home to research.

The most obvious thing to do was to consult Sue Ellen Fast and Will Husby of Ecoleaders, who are extremely knowledgeable about freshwater ecosystems. In addition to being some of the kindest people I know, they are also my neighbours, so I took some of the little half-spheres by their house and Will had a good look. Will has easily cleared up some previous Wild Art mysteries, such as the identification of our local signal crayfish, freshwater sponges and freshwater fingernail clams. However, on examining these little half-spheres, he was stumped.

So off to our local facebook forum, where I could easily post a photo of our mysterious find, and get some responses. I also personally emailed the photo to a few other knowledgeable locals and the curator of marine invertebrates at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Understandably, most people looking at the photo thought they looked like mushrooms or seeds, however Sue Ellen had done a vinegar test and confirmed they were indeed calcium carbonate, so mushrooms or seeds seemed out of the question. Other suggestions ranged from urchins to discarded candies or drugs, fossilized berries, concretions from garbage left in the park, or tiny geodes. We all see through the lens of our own experience!

And then, unexpectedly, the answer appeared in my email. Will had come through, after all, having followed a hunch, based on my finding of a crayfish claw, nearby. What we have found are gastroliths! Will says “they are found in freshwater crayfish (and) are part of a system for conserving calcium used in making their exoskeletons.” He speculates that they were part of an otter's poop, which was left on the creek bank before being eroded by rain and leaving only the gastroliths behind.

Andrew Hosie of the Western Australian Museum explains on his blog that “the calcium provides strength to the exoskeleton so that it can support the animal’s body, give the claws their pinching power and to protect it from predators. As crayfish (indeed all crustaceans) grow bigger, they must periodically shed the exoskeleton and form a new one. To start a new exoskeleton from scratch would require large amounts of new calcium. The hormones that drive moulting (referred to as ecdysis) trigger calcium carbonate to be removed from the exoskeleton and starts forming a pair of these gastroliths in the stomach. After the crayfish has moulted, the gastroliths are reabsorbed and used in the strengthening of the new exoskeleton. Only freshwater crustaceans form gastroliths because unlike seawater, freshwater has very little dissolved calcium salts, so in an effort to retain calcium, crayfish form these little gastroliths, or even eat the old exoskeleton.” He also tells us that “pharmaceutical companies are actively researching the use of gastroliths to treat osteoporosis related conditions.”

Isn't it wonderful how one mysterious discovery can bring people together and open our minds?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Wild Food Spotlight 6: Licorice Fern

This is the sixth in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin.
~  ~  ~
The ice is retreating from the shores of our lakes; the sky pelts us with droplets instead of crystalline flakes. And as we creep out into the nascent spring, recovering from the viruses of winter, the skin of the maple trees is coming back to life, as well. The many things that make their home in and on this fertile skin, long withered from the summer's drought and winter's frigid wind, are soaking up the rains and growing, again.

If you look up on almost any bigleaf maple around here, you'll discover haphazard forests of ferns, growing from the moss, there. These are licorice ferns. Find some you can reach, dig your fingers into the soft moss, and feel along the root until you find the end. You can feel where the root is hard and dry, and where the newer growth begins, all smooth and round and fresh. Break off a couple of inches or so of this newer root – it will be enough for a snack or a couple of cups of tea – but be sure not to rip off the moss. This moss is part of our rich ecosystem, and benefits both the tree and the many things that live on it. If you leave most of the fern growing in the moss, you can come back again to harvest later.

Sometimes you can find licorice ferns growing on mossy bluffs or logs, as well. They're still fine to eat, and easy to identify. It's OK to take a fern frond once in a while, too, especially if this is your first time harvesting and you want to examine it!

Now look at the fern. You'll notice it has a stem, leaflets, and spores like other ferns do, but the leaflets are fully attached to the stem. If you compare it to a sword fern frond, you'll see that each sword fern leaflet is attached by a tiny point of a stem. Not so with the licorice fern! Another obvious difference between the two is the taste and smell of the root. It's called licorice fern for a reason, and no other fern in our area has a root that smells like that of licorice fern.

So what to do with this tasty root now? Actually, tasty is a matter of opinion. I've seen more than one person spit it out in disgust. But licorice is not for everyone, and some of us love it. Also, the bitter taste it has when freshly picked pretty much disappears when it's brewed into tea.

Tea is probably the easiest and most effective way to use licorice fern. If you like it you can harvest a lot of it in the early- to mid-spring, chop it up and simply dry it in a basket or sieve on your counter. Keep the dried roots in a jar and use it like you would any other tea. If you want your harvest to go further, crush the dried roots before steeping to help release the oils.

Licorice fern tea has some well-known medicinal properties. It's used to calm a sore throat and cough, to relieve gas and to aid recovery from chest infections.

Most importantly, I feel like licorice fern is a reminder of our integrated ecosystem. All over this island you can find maples, and most of them carry a garden of moss and licorice ferns. This garden is home to a host of other species, and every time we see it we can remember how complex our world is, how important each member of our community is to the well-being of us all, and how we depend upon each other for life.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Wild Art Exploration: One Clear Day

Such a rich and wonderful day with two groups of Wild Art kids today, that I thought I'd share it as a photo montage.

The teen group went to check out the old dump site along the Dump Road, and we saw a shimmering orange puddle where rust and oil leaches out from the dump pile.

From there we headed up to Everhard Creek, where we used spoons to harvest some clay. That was about all we had time for today, but we've hatched a plan to return next week with a bucket, and try filtering the clay.

The younger group returned to the forest village they'd begun making the week before, and carried on creating things to sell at their shops and restaurants. One group led a tour to a beaver lodge, and later became petty criminals, robbing the shops and calling the 'police' on each other. We discovered some as-yet-unidentified little calciferous things (photo included), and returned very wet and muddy - the perfect ending to a great adventure!

That's the robber escaping on the left, and his 'boss' sitting carving a stick in the shop the two of them created.
These are the unidentified little calciferous semi-spheres we found on the forest floor.

A 'fire pit'.
An abandoned cedar crown.

Cedar crowns for sale at one of the shops.
Unidentified (maybe heron?) prints.

The beaver lodge! Entrances are barely visible on the left and centre-right, behind a few large sticks.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Risk-Taking is Essential for Learning to be Safe

Looking at bubbles in the ice and a watery landscape underneath.
For as long as I can remember, I've been hearing mumblings of concern over the increased safety-restrictions placed on our children. We like to talk about "when we were kids" and how our lives were so much freer; so much more dangerous. "And we turned out just fine." But when it comes to our own kids we're still terrified, placing ever more layers of armour on them and keeping them ever closer, ever more restricted in their movements. We read great articles about how necessary it is for our kids to explore and take risks. And then we see them heading out without a helment, freak out, chase them down, apply helmet, and tell them not to go out of our sight. Or something like that.

I'm not immune to those struggles, as a parent. But because I teach, and am thinking every day about how to engage people I work with in healthy, dangerous play, I have the opportunity to keep reminding myself why it matters to let my children take risks.

Frozen ditches!
Last week I took a couple of groups of kids out exploring ice. We talked a lot about ice safety, how to recognize dangerous areas, and how to deal with cracking ice, to avoid falling through. We looked down and estimated the thickness of the ice based on bubbles and twigs that were frozen into and floating under the ice. We also cautiously went out on all fours and bellies, exploring the ice, knowing that it wasn't likely strong enough to stand on, but learning to gauge the danger (how deep was the water under the ice? how thick was the ice? how concentrated was our weight? was it cracking?). In some places the ice did crack, and the kids had to safely navigate away from the more dangerous areas as they discovered them. They also stomped around on some shallow areas and stomped right through some of the ice, into the mud.

I feel that this dangerous play is essential learning - it enables the kids to take risks in relative safety and to learn from them. This is not only essential for wilderness activities, but also for life in general, since so much of what we learn requires risk, and it's nice to be able to mitigate the severity of the risks from a place of personal understanding. I feel this leads to greater safety, and in my experience with teaching I have definitely seen that the more cautious risks children take, the more confident they become, and the less severe their stumbles are, when they make them.

PS: Ever hear of belly hockey? The correct rink for this is a 2-inch thick layer of ice over a couple of feet of murky creek water. Grab yourself some nice sticks and a chunk of wood for a puck... and have at it!

The MAMA Project 2017

I'm gearing up for a new iteration of the MAMA Project, including a bunch of new portraits and voice recordings, and probably quite a different installation, since the space is smaller and different from any I've used before.

The MAMA Project 2017 will happen at the Deer Lake Gallery in Burnaby, BC, from May 11th until June 2. Performance just before Mothers' Day on May 13th. More info here:

And here are a few previews from the audio I'm editing right now!

The reality of motherhood is so huge; so diverse; so life-changing. There is no measuring how much motherhood changes us as people, or how much change we create in the world through our mothering.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


Some people leave you forever and you don't even notice they're gone. Some give forever as a gift; a promise, and you hold it like an ever-full rice-bowl until one day it is empty. Some shove forever down your throat like a weapon, leave you bleeding and retching, and then they stand smiling at your door again, arms stretched like ever. Some people hang up the phone, turn away, wave nonchalantly or blow a kiss and you never cherish it at all, until later you realize that was goodbye forever. Some people are gone forever and you can't see it. There always seems to be another door that they are not behind; another ringing phone without their voice on the other end; another day gone without them. Some people commit to forever, hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock, find empty rice-bowls and closed doors, but they keep working to surmount the difficulties, to mend the seams, and to carry the pieces forward into forever. Some people never commit to anything; never demand anything, but when you look back at your life they have always been there, and you depend on that. Forever. Even when their voices are memories.

There are so many ways to forever, and we are always just stumbling along, never knowing where the end is, because there is none. And the people we find still holding our hearts in each moment are a piece of forever.

This is one of the times in the year we like to sit back and think about what has gone by. A year ago I could never have predicted the way this year would unfold; not even a month ago. So this year I look forward with no intention to control things, nor to predict an outcome. I just hope to ride the waves with some kind of grace, or at least to keep afloat. I hope to notice and appreciate those beautiful things I may have missed before, and I hope to leave behind seeds of love - the quietly forever kind - wherever this year brings me.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 5: Rose Hips

This is the fifth in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin.
~  ~  ~
Here we are enjoying a rare white December. Some community events have had to be cancelled due to the slippery roads, while others have carried on despite the hazards, and we've trouped out in our boots and snow gear to join our friends and loved ones in celebrating. What a joy to see the sun hit the solid crystalline snow like a crash of diamonds; to see drooping snowmen ornamenting so many driveways. I saw a large white Mike Wazowski in the meadow! Before the big melt began this week, the sides of streams and edges of bluffs were adorned with the most intricate icicles; children's faces were pink from eating them, and from all the frolicking that happens when we're given the gift of snow.

So who really thinks about foraging while skating on the lake? Well... you might. Or especially while trudging through the rained-on snow we've got right now. After all... the snow is beginning to crush like snow-cone ice and you'd need a tasty syrup to flavour that. Mmmm... syrup. What about winter berries? Most of them aren't particularly edible – some are even poisonous. But rose hips - those are a gift from the winter to your health. And your snow-cone, should you desire one.

If you cut into a rose hip, you'll find they're mostly seeds, which frankly are hardly useful and very scratchy. It's the thin layer of meat just under the skin that we're after, whether for jam, jellies, or syrup. Rose hips are best harvested after the first frost, which further develops their sugars and renders that outer layer of meat soft and pulpy. In the interior I used to squeeze this pulpy jam out and eat it straight off the bush. However, in our area they won't develop enough sugar to balance out the sour taste of their extremely high ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content.

Rose hips actually have such a high vitamin C content that they have been used by many cultures as a winter immune booster, and to prevent scurvy. Of course, heating does greatly diminish the vitamin C content, but thankfully rose hips seem to retain more than many other fruits. In war-time Britain, vitamin C was in short supply due to lack of imports, and people ate a lot of rose hip preserves. In a study conducted in 1942, the British Medical Journal found rose hip syrup to contain equal to more than twice as much vitamin C as other foods such as blackcurrant jam, fresh and tinned orange juice, and tomato juice (1). One final note about vitamin C: It's important to cook rose hip preserves in non-aluminum pans, as aluminum also destroys vitamin C.

Now back to those snow-cones. I'm writing this as the syrup is cooling in the kitchen, and my kids are eager for taste-testing. But you can't pour hot syrup over snow, so they'll just have to keep waiting!

Harvesting rose hips is simple: Nothing more than twisting off the hips until you have a bowlful. Choose rose hips that are plentiful and bright red. They'll darken after freezing, and the skin of some will split open, revealing a bright red or orange paste underneath. You don't want the hips that are becoming black or brown, and those that are still pale and hard are better for making tea.

Tea: Just chop up a tiny handful of rose hips and steep in hot water until it's as strong as you like it!

Syrup: cut the rose hips in half, and dump them into a non-aluminum saucepan. Add enough water to fully cover them all, plus an extra centimetre or so; an inch higher if you've filled a medium-sized pan.

Bring to a boil, and after a couple of minutes of boiling, mash with a fork or potato masher until the concoction begins to resemble tomato soup.

When you don't see many chunks of pulp floating around anymore, and it's quite thick and creamy, strain it through a sieve or jelly bag into a ceramic bowl.

Pour the strained juice back into the saucepan (make sure no seeds remain on the sides of the pan), and bring to a boil again. Add sugar or honey to taste. Turn the heat down just enough so that it keeps boiling, and cook until it's thick enough to stick to the back of a spoon (or as thick as you like!)

Snow Cones: Let it cool, and pour it over a clean cup of this nice slushy ice we have. You can store whatever you don't consume right away in the fridge (or outside in a sealed container!) for a couple of weeks. I dare you try and make it last that long – it's also excellent on pancakes, drizzled over trifle, cakes, or even mixed with sparkling water for a special drink.

Happy winter!



Friday, December 2, 2016

Annie's Grain-Free Kruidnoten: Jawel!

(AKA granenvrije, graanvrij, glutenvrij, strooigoed en pepernoten)

As you're probably aware, our daughter's diagnosis of Hashimoto's Disease has meant big changes in our family's diet. The biggest of those changes (and most disappointing to an 11 and now 12-year-old girl), is the removal of most grains and sugars from her diet. All sugars are out - even honey and maple syrup. We are making an infrequent exception for special occasions, however, and Sinterklaas is one of those. How can we expect our girl to go through Sinterklaas and not consume a single kruidnoot? So she and I created this recipe whereby she gets all the taste and crunch of kruidnoten, without the grains and sugar!

A note on sugar: We are using xylitol as the sweetener for these special treats, but the same rule does not apply to everyone. In fact xylitol can cause diarrhea and other problems if eaten too often or in large quantities. So if you have your own preferred sweetener, try it out! This recipe will also work with coconut sugar, and probably honey, although we haven't tried that yet. Let us know in the comments how you alter this and how it works for you!

Grain-Free Kruidnoten

Mix in a bowl:
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • about 6 to 7 tbsp coconut oil, melted and cooled to approximately skin-temperature. This is important. If you pour hot oil into the bowl it will cook the egg.
  • 1/2 cup xylitol or coconut sugar

Mix in a separate bowl, then add:
  • 1 cup almond flour
  • 1/4 cup coconut flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tbsp speculaaskruiden* (see below)
  • 1/4 tsp xanthan gum

Roll into tiny balls, squish just a little flat on a paper-lined baking sheet, and bake at 350F for 12 minutes.

After 12 minutes, take them out and put the whole paper liner on a rack to cool . They look great, but are not yet crunchy, as proper kruidnoten should be!

Once cooled, put them in a dehydrator on a low-temperature setting (we used 150F), and dehydrate for a few hours until they're nice and crunchy. After being left overnight, they'll be even crunchier!

Speculaaskruiden is a mixture of spices for making Dutch spice cookies. This is my own blend, specifically for kruidnoten. It makes more than you'll need for this recipe, but believe me - you will use it up quickly!

Use a scale for this, and measure the following into a bowl. Mix it well and store in an airtight jar.
*all ingredients should be finely ground
  • 50g cinnamon
  • 25g nutmeg
  • 5g cloves
  • 10g ginger
  • 5g black pepper
  • 3g anise seed (optional)

Gooi wat in mijn schoentje!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Community Building in a Forest Village

A Forest Village is something that happens often in Wild Art. After a certain amount of exploring, kids usually between about seven and twelve years old get industrious. Some begin converting whatever materials they find around themselves into decor, clothing, 'food', weapons, or other commodities, and selling them in pop-up shops. Some spend minutes or hours building all manner of lodgings, theatres, town-halls, shops, and other useful structures. Some offer classes, sharing skills they've brought with them or just discovered, while others offer tours of the local mushrooms or 'fancy places'. When necessity dictates, they build bridges and ramps, doors, 'fire pits', and ladders, and often go into business procuring the supplies for these projects and selling them to each other for various combinations of stone, stick, and leaf currencies. Safes, stashes and banks happen. Even robbers happen. And often we end up having police, mayors, town criers and all sorts of other interesting positions. Today I was instructed to be the person who tells everybody else "when it's night time - and do it at least twice!!" But I forgot the second time, because by then I was a detective, wearing a mustache of a moss we call 'old man's beard'. I was on the trail of some robbers, but when their exploits made the rest of the villagers too angry, I called a town meeting and became a spectator as the group of young villagers sorted out what was actually a genuine conflict quite ably. The robbers became spies.

A Forest Village is a wonderful place to work out real-world problems, and to make real-world discoveries. With a lack of imposed structure, kids' imaginations are the source for everything. It's amazing to me what deep issues a group of primary kids can discover, confront, and solve with the innate compassion, dignity, and reason that has not yet been trained out of them. The forest is a dynamic yet safe vessel for these explorations, and eventually the skills developed here will become a strong foundation for those who will inherit our communities.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Angry Unschoolers

Have you ever met any of those unschoolers who, as soon as they get an opportunity, will launch into a diatribe about their kids' misfortunes at school, or the wrong-headed and morally repugnant beginnings of our current system? They don't just look for opportunities – they even create them. They have stories about pain and terror; a hurt and twisted look in their eyes as if they know you'll bite at any moment. And they have so. many. facts! They have read all the research and they know they are right! And they have solutions that sometimes sound more like black bloc tactics or tear-gas shooting than anything really useful or accessible at all. They're really just angry. Angry unschoolers.

Some of us avoid them because they give unschoolers a bad name. But many of us are them. I am.

We began unschooling because I could see that my eldest child would be as unserved by the school system as I was: He's creative, shy, extremely sensitive and his moral convictions are strong. Also like me, he abhors taking direction. He didn't learn to read until I stopped trying to encourage him, and then he just quickly taught himself. Moreover, he actually rejected books for many months in an effort to thwart my reading encouragement. I saw in him the same drive to be self-sufficient that I have, and didn't want to send him into the system that had failed me so badly.

And it did fail me. For all the wonderful things that happened for me in school, for the various teachers who worked tirelessly with me and on my behalf, and for those who even genuinely loved me, nobody was able to allow me to teach myself. Nobody was able to make me safe on the school ground, or even in the classroom while under supervision. Nobody was able to teach me that I had an intrinsic value unrelated to grades and competition. I never felt like I mattered, until grade eleven, when out of sheer angry rebellion I decided to write and paint and science however I wanted. I did it with abandon… and was rewarded for it in grades and scholarships. I graduated indignant and angry and without respect for the institution that had raised me. And when I became a parent I still carried that anger.

No way in hell was I going to enroll my beloved son in a school – the exact same school, no less – that had left me so broken. Nor would I let his passions be crushed by well-meaning people who thought they knew better than he did what he needed from life. I tried out an alternative homeschooling support program for a year, and then cut straight to free-range unschooling. Ironically, I was so angry about my own childhood that some of that anger haunted my parenting. I didn't want my son telling me what to do anymore than I wanted my teachers telling me what to do, and I attempted many times to coral or redirect his activities. I also fell victim to the common crime of competitive parenting, and pushed him to do things he didn't want to do out of fear that he may not measure up to his peers. Like reading. He pushed back harder, and every single time I pushed, I failed, and he was bombarded by my anger. I made him feel like he failed. And every time I backed off, he excelled – at his own passions.

It took me many years to feel like I was parenting from a place of inspiration instead of fear and anger, and I'm still not where I'd like to be. I know that the struggle to overcome my childhood anger will take the rest of my life, and I am not writing this now from a place of righteous conclusion. I'm writing from a place of desperate searching. Because I see how harmful the anger is, and I want to overcome it.

The trouble is, it's hard to overcome something when it's still serving a purpose. Revolutions are often kickstarted by anger. An angry population finally gets pushed so far that it pushes back. And that's what's been happening with unschooling. Enough of us have been failed badly enough by the school system that we've rejected it in anger – and while out here in the wilderness blindly feeling our way around, thrashing out at our fears and constantly seeking new pathways around the ever-appearing obstacles – we are finding something beautiful.

It happens in those little moments when we're tromping through the woods and see the many years of our children's faces all in one brief smile and we're grateful to have those shared memories. It happens when we accidentally lose a day playing Minecraft with our kids and then discover we gained more than we lost. It happens when we see our kids confront the things we are deathly afraid of with bravery, wisdom, and integrity. It happens when we discover they are actually not even afraid. It happens when we realize that our anger led us to this place of great freedom and discovery, and now we can leave the anger behind.

Unschooling is such a fighting word. I tried to use 'life-learning' for a while but it didn't work out. People know what unschooling means, and I think that's because it's still too new of a movement to move beyond its angry roots. The majority of children are still stuck in the school system, not knowing there are other opportunities. So, as more and more people use fear or anger to hurtle themselves out onto this new way of raising kids, the anger is still serving us. But things are changing. Our own province is implementing a new curriculum that values broad ideas and personal development over specific fact-based learning. Other countries and districts are opening up in other ways, with mixed-age groupings, mixed-subjects and even no subjects, with online and cross-enrolled courses, outdoor learning, and with various forms of self-direction. I have seen various projects conceived by myself or other unschoolers and non-coercive educators be implemented in mainstream school programs. So unschooling philosophy and experience is already influencing mainstream education. It may not be that the recent growth in unschooling leads to a majority of kids being unschooled, but rather that it feeds everything we learn back into a better system.

Sometimes I feel like a lighthouse out here. The whole reason we're here is because there was something to fear - something to warn others about and to shine light on a safer option. There is still all kinds of danger crashing around us like angry waves, but we just stick it out. And as a bonus we get to be right out here in all the storms, right out here in all the sunrises and rainbows and just feeling and living and loving all of it.

I don't mind the loneliness that comes with being a maverick. I love being out here on the edge, watching my kids benefit from all the wonder and excitement of trailblazing. This feeling of joy is what allows me to leave the anger behind, so I'm just going to keep on feeling it. Anger certainly serves a purpose as an instigator of ingenuity, but it's time for those of us who have already made the leap to be fueled by joy and inspiration, instead.

Solidarity to those of you just stepping into this world. And to the rest of us: Party on!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mothering, Employment and Worth

Photo by Kim Weedmark.
My friend gave me this photo a few days ago. She came along as a parent helper with her older son's Wild Art outing, and she brought her younger sons along, too. This is me dumping some of the creek out of one of her sons' boots, as he said "you need to dump it out, but not on my leg. You need to dump it over there."

When I saw this photo I felt so happy. That's something I can almost never say about a photo of myself, so when it happens it feels amazing. And I had to think for a while about why this moment was so wonderful to me, or this photo of me in my muddy rain gear dumping out a child's boots.

Then I realized: It's not just muddy rain gear. That is the muddy rain gear that I wear when I take people adventuring in the wet wilderness. That mud is my badge of joy. It's not just any water. That is some of the creek that filled up so much it ran out and filled the trails in the meadow. That is the creek these kids know as part of their home, and I have had the enormous privilege of sharing their experiences of getting to know it. It's not just any child - it's a boy I've been adventuring with many times, and I adore him. There are moments of his wonder-filled face etched in the crevices of my brain, so that when I walk through certain areas I will think of him, just like when I paint a certain way I will think of other people I've painted with, or when I climb a certain tree I will think of the people who first climbed that tree with me. Now when I dump out boots I will remember his deliberate instructions to not dump it on his leg - always.

I have had difficulty finding work for a few months, and on top of the financial woes that situation brings, I've been feeling worthless. It's easy to slip into worthlessness when mothering. Even though you know your presence is needed, it doesn't always feel that way. And when your kids are as old as mine are, and they don't even really need you to cook for them, they want rides but you know it's better for them to transport themselves, they don't particularly want your loving advice, and you don't want to alienate them with criticism, but you find yourself doing it anyway... then you might become lost. I was so lost. And as my employment dried up over the last year it felt like the world had conspired to remind me that I was unneeded. I couldn't even bring home an income, let alone be of value to somebody.

Luckily I did have a job lined up, and it began last week. It's only once (sometimes twice) per week, but it's my work. It's a job I've created out of my own passion and I love my work. I love going out in the woods and beaches and meadows and creeks and just launching myself full-force into impassioned exploration and discovery. I love coming back to a warm cup of tea and my richly inspiring studio and either creating what my heart feels, or sharing a wonderful material exploration with others. I love sharing these experiences with other people. I love my work! And now I realize: I love that I have work. I love that there is something I can do that brings the joy I experience into reach for other people. I love that even if it's just because somebody needed his boots dumped out, I made a difference.

There's nothing like a few months without plumbing or potable water to make you realize how much you treasure the clean water. There's nothing like returning to work after a time of employment drought to remind you that you deserve to exist in the world.

Thank you, world, for making a space for me and the work I love to do. Thank you, parents, for trusting me to take your kids gallivanting in the wild and in the art. Thank you, adventurers young and adult, for tromping into wildernesses with me. And thank you Kim, for taking the photo that unlocked all this gratitude.

I guess I needed the opportunity to work again to renew my spirit. But I also needed some extra time to process what had happened. Until I saw this photo I didn't even realize what had been missing in my life. I guess more time is always a good thing. My young friend gave me some advice on that, too:

"You need to bring the clock with more minutes. How many minutes does your clock have?"

"Sixty," I replied, uncertainly.

"Next time you should bring the one with a hundred."


Friday, October 28, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 4: Burdock

This is the third 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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It's pretty soggy out these days. What remains of our wild and cultivated leafy greens is mostly melting away in a grey-brown sludge, battered by fallen branches and covered by the remains of other plants. But underneath the nearly-frosty ground, the roots are at their prime; ready for eating, canning, roasting, drying and steeping.

Similar to other members of the Aster family such as Canada thistle, dandelion, artichoke and chicory, burdock root contains plenty of the dietary fibre, inulin. Among other benefits, inulin supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestines(1). As a diuretic, starchy root vegetable, and source of inulin, burdock is used by many populations both medicinally and as food.(2)

Identifying burdock: The easiest way to identify burdock is to find burs. If you walk near the edge of the trails or roadsides around here, you probably already know where to find them, unless you've already carried them all away on your sleeves and boot-laces. They're those brown prickly velcro-like seed-heads that cling to their old brown stems at about knee-height, this time of year. (Yes, Velcro was indeed invented when Swiss engineer George de Mestral was inspired by similarly clingy burdock burs!(3))

This large plant is conspicuous in summer, with its broad, slightly-fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, and magenta thistle flowers or green (and later brown) burs all over its tall stems. However at this time of year it's beginning to look rather sorry. The year-old burdock plants (those that haven't yet flowered) will generally look like a handful of yellowing limp leaves, radiating out from the centre. That's where you'll find the root. In older plants that have already flowered, the root will be at the base of those long brown stalks of burs.

Note: Do not confuse burdock with foxglove (medicinal in small amounts but can cause heart-failure), which has a very different scent and diamond-shaped, but similarly large and fuzzy leaves. If you're new to burdock harvesting, take a guidebook and make sure you're harvesting from the correct plant.

Harvesting and cooking: The best roots for eating come from those plants that haven't yet flowered. The older roots are inferior, and better dug in spring. You can dig the roots up any time of year, but mid- to late-autumn is when they're best, after a summer of good growth, and before they freeze. 

Dig down very deep, pulling out the whole root, which can be very long. Give the roots a scrub, and then peel them. I find a potato peeler works quite well. Now you can chop them up or sliver them and cook them as you would parsnips or other such roots: add to soups, sauté, ferment (as in kimchi) or stir-fry with other vegetables. My husband wants me to point out that they can be rather bitter and maybe not best as the main component of a dish.

Fresh burdock roots don't keep very well, and lose some of their health benefits as they're stored in the fridge, so you may prefer to harvest them fresh rather than store them.

Tea or Coffee: One of the most delicious uses of burdock that I know of is as a tea or coffee substitute. You can cut your peeled burdock into very small pieces and dry it, then store it in a jar until needed for steeping. There are three basic ways of steeping burdock root for a hot drink:

Raw infusion: Simply steep the raw dried roots. This is very weak and 'leafy', and frankly not very enjoyable!

Roasted and steeped as tea: either over a stove or in an oven, slowly heat the dry burdock root pieces until they are brown (but not black!). Then steep as you would regular tea. The result is a rich and earthy-flavoured transparent brown infusion that tastes lovely on its own or with a bit of milk or sugar, if that is how you like your tea.

Ground and filtered as coffee: Take the roasted dried burdock and grind it in a coffee mill. Use it in a drip-filter or French press, and you'll have a heavier, heartier drink, with a slightly more bitter flavour than if it's just infused.

Happy autumn! May your days be filled with harvesting adventures, and your evenings with delicious wild foods and warm drinks.