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.
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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.