April 2012 archive

Fleabane for dogs and other edible delights

Last Saturday morning my husband
went with a group of people to forage.  They each paid twenty dollars to a man who knows about these
things and went off in search of edible plants, the sort that grow out in the open and are commonly thought of as weeds.  
Some folk lasted the two hours plus of searching while one or two fell away during the course of the morning, though not my husband.  Never my husband.  He is a man who loves the adventure of
finding useful things, especially things we can eat.  I say this with the
utmost admiration.
When my husband came home with his list of
names for the edible plants he had found, along with a few samples for
tasting, his joy was
infectious.  For me the names
themselves evoked a writer’s thrill.  
How can I use such names in my writing?  Here I can only offer a list.  Among other things, my husband found wild lettuce –
straightforward enough; amaranth – four samples; edible blackberry; nightshade;
stinging nettle; mallow; ten varieties of wild Brassica; river mint; and my
favourite of all, fat hen.
My husband’s hat filled with other edible delights he found locally at Gardiner’s Creek.
On the other side of his
handwritten list, which he had tallied up on the back of the morning program, my husband included clover; opium lettuce; prickly lettuce, wild cabbage; plantain and
milk thistle.  He added something
called cleevers, shepherd’s purse, sticky weed and purslane.  He also listed  flea
bane for dogs.  If only he had brought some of that home for our dog.  And finally he included dock.
Who would have thought all that food is freely available down by the Merri creek or in any other vacant
allotment where land has been left to go to seed.  
When land is left unattended for long periods, my husband tells me, the plants that spring up tend to be plants from the past – heritage plants – those whose seeds might lie for decades dormant in the soil only to reappear when conditions
might be tough for other plants, but ideal for these hardy specimens.
It puts me in mind of writing.  Next Sunday I’m off to a non-fiction
writing class under the guidance of Leslie Cannold.  I need to do something in the direction of turning my thesis
into a book and I figure a new voice, some new input, might well get me started.  
It’s not true that I have not
started.  I have written most of
it, but maybe I’m in need of some of these old hardy plants that come out in
times of want.  The manicured stuff
seems stale now, like an over attended garden filled with exotics and pruned trees.  
I prefer natives and
I prefer a degree of disorder, a country garden where you can never be sure
what you might find around the next corner. 

‘No one is as old as me’

The rose bush outside my window is top heavy with flowers. Full petalled cups that drop down as if they are too heavy for each stem to support.

 My head feels the same this morning, top heavy and ready to topple. Too full of thoughts to be able to tease them apart.

Ours is a winter sky today and winter skies remind me of Europe, that first time we visited when I was still a young woman, though then I thought myself quite the sophisticate.

 In 1980 when my aunt met me at Schipol airport in Amsterdam she told me later she had been fearful of who and what she might find.
‘But you were just a girl,’ she said, ‘just a young girl.’ And no longer did she feel intimidated.

Now, thirty five years later, my aunt is dead.

My aunt in Holland, the year I was born in Australia, when she herself was a young ‘girl’.

 My aunt who goes by my two middle names, Margaretha Maria, was a twin born half the weight of her twin brother. So sickly was she during her early life that her parents sent her off to live in Munster, where she was allegedly spoiled by her childless aunt and uncle, away from the rigours of life with her parents and six other siblings.

 This was a commonplace event in those days perhaps but one I suspect that had a profound effect on my aunt. Sent away for her physical health with little regard for her emotional state. She felt abandoned.

 My aunt was so unlike her sister, my supremely optimistic mother, who is six years older and very much the opposite.

At 92 years of age my mother wants to live forever.

 My mother believes the world is full of goodness and help is always there when she needs it. Before my father died he told her that although he had not provided well for her after his death, he was sure she would find someone else to take care of her. Not that he took much care of her other than to provide her with many children.

 My aunt on the other hand, did not trust that the world would provide. And on her death notice which recently arrived here in the mail, her children had included these words:
Ik voel me stokoud. Niemand is zo oud als ik. I feel I am so old. No one is as old as me.

 My mother protests. How could my aunt say such a thing? She was not sick. Old, yes, maybe, but not sick.

 Try as I might to explain to my mother that her younger sister had lost the will to live, my mother remains confused, even after she reads Tonny Van Tiggelen’s eulogy.

Tonny, who had been my aunt’s friend for nearly eighty years wrote the eulogy in the form of a letter to her dead friend.
 ‘You would get angry when I told you to eat, otherwise you would die. But you were not interested in living any more.’

 After my aunt’s husband had died in 1994, Tonny said, her friend lost her way. My aunt’s husband as he was dying had arranged for her to live in a new house in Castricum, custom built to suit her needs but for my aunt:
 ‘The house was too big. There was too much sun. You had to walk the stairs and look after the flowers in the garden and you did not like that at all. The next house was smaller but it was too cold with not enough sun. The view was good, but you did not like it any more.’

 Slowly my aunt had stopped eating, Tonny said, and she stopped sharing a glass of wine with her friend. She stopped going out to eat.

 Tonny remembered their friendship. How they walked as flower girls together, on religious occasions, dressed in white with veils; how they rode on their bikes during the war to a village, Boverkaspel, to get food, but had then to flee because someone shot dead a National Socialist in front of them.

Tonny remembered how one of my aunt’s mothers friends had given them brown beans and oliebollen (dough balls) to eat and all the way home they had to stop by the side of the road to relieve themselves. The food had been so rich.

 Tonny remembered the two years they had worked together in a crèche, again during the war, and how they licked the pots and pans clean.

 She remembered the red cabbage feast at my mother’s place with candlelight and in evening dress…and how my aunt had so often said that when she died she would she see what there was to see.

My mother is certain of what she will see after she dies and yet she is reluctant to go off to see it. My aunt on the other hand, who kept an open mind about what she would find, has gone off in search of it.

I miss her already.

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