I live in a landscape of strip malls. In these increasingly ever-present and very American places, it’s challenging to feel connected to the land.
I wanted dirt for my children. Soil. Connection. Madre Tierra. Ecology.
I’m not crunchy. I don’t wear a nut bag around my neck; I don’t wear hemp shoes. I’m a classic Bobbi-Brown-lip-gloss- and cardigan-wearing suburban mom.
But I grew up spending summers at my grandparents’ farm, on the eastern shore of Maryland. I used to pick wild blackberries, catch a dinner of blue crabs, and run between the rows of the tall corn plants. I knew what wild garlic looked like; when the figs on the fig trees were ready to eat, I ate them. I delicately picked flowers from the honeysuckle vine and sucked the nectar out. I’ve taught my kids to do the same. “It’s so sweet, Mom,” they tell me.
But instead of teaching my kids about that landscape, I decided to instill in them a love of the land where they live. Suburbia is not as obviously lovable as tidewater country, but I was determined to practice PBL— place-based learning. That’s a thing in education. I looked it up.
So we went to the abandoned parking lot near the dead mall and foraged for dandelion greens, which make a delicious bitter spring salad.
We dug with sticks in the wheel ruts of the road being paved for a Wegmans grocery store. My ten-year-old found a hunk of feldspar. That inspired him to start a rock collection. “This is cool, Mom,” he said. “Feldspar.” My maternal heart grew an inch.
It wasn’t a stretch to capitalize on my children’s instincts to explore their world and to eat from it. They inherited both from early man. So I’ve been teaching them to forage, the way my mother taught me and her mother taught her, all the way back to my ancestral people, the old-country mushroom hunters of Alsace.
In the fall, I took my kids to stands of chestnut trees and showed them how to wrest the edible nuts from their prickly husks. We came home with full bags, and I made sweet chestnut puree, which we ate with a big spoon, like a homemade Nutella. I felt that I had taught them some big lesson about the earth. The beauty of it. That it, rather than Target, sustains them. That they should have appreciation for all the parts of the living soil.
Recently the goal has been to find wild chives, which grow along roadsides. And to try the berries of the dogwood trees; I read in my wild-edibles field guide that they taste like mango. We’re waiting for the mulberry seeds dropped by birds to take root in the interstices of the asphalt and overwhelm the abandoned parking lot at the mall, because I have a good recipe for mulberry ice cream, passed down by my grandmother.
It has been revolutionary to be outside, in the suburbs. We have embraced simply walking, observing, feeling the dirt under our feet, and occasionally bringing home something we harvested with our own hands. Those spring chives made a great garnish, and the kids beamed with pride of place.