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.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Letting Go of Comparative Schooling

Homelearning-related terms can seem like a quagmire, so I think I'll start with a glossary of terms used here:
  • Brick-and-Mortar School: This can refer to a public school, independent or private school, or even a DL school, as long as the school has a building where students attend, at least some of the time. It has more to do with the fact that it's in a dedicated building than anything else, but the term is also used to describe a traditional one-building school where students attend five days per week and complete a prescribed curriculum.
  • Distributed Learning (DL): This is a classification of schooling in our province that often involves home-based learning either directed or managed by parents and/or DL teachers. It also often includes part-time or alternative classroom studies. DL students are evaluated by teachers according to current provincial curriculum and have reports registered with the ministry just like students of traditional classroom programs.
  • Homeschooling: Registered Homeschoolers are registered through the province and do not receive any curriculum, guidance, or financial support from the province or from the registering school. Homeschooling is in fact a legal term, and while it is often used in the homelearning community to differentiate families who set up a school-at-home scenario vs. families who unschool, there are in fact many registered homeschooling families who do not use curriculum or 'teach' school at home, but follow some degree of unschooling philosophy. It is important to maintain the legal meaning of this word in order to ensure that this remains a legal option for those families who choose it.
  • School-at-Home: Parent-led curriculum-based schooling that happens in the home. The family may be registered homeschoolers, distributed learners, or students registered in a brick-and-mortar school who for whatever reasons are doing some of their work from home. The curriculum may be provided by a school, bought as a package by the family, or created by the parents with or without input from education professionals.
  • Unschooling: Learning on one's own terms, defining one's own goals and path without coercion from parents or teachers. Unschooling often happens outside of the school system, but is sometimes practised by families who enroll as distributed learners, or even families who enroll in more traditional schools. Unschooling often involves the whole family, and can include varying degrees of parental guidance or control, depending on each individual family. The term unschooling was originally coined by John Holt, and refers to the process of unlearning some of the constraints taught in traditional schools. Alternate terminology for unschooling includes self-directed learning and life-learning.
  • Homelearning: This is a handy catch-all term for people learning from home. Unschoolers, registered homeschoolers, distributed learners and those who school-at-home can all be considered homelearners, provided they do at least some of their schooling from home.
All those terms are useful in describing the ways we raise our children and interact with the school system, but they can also be divisive. They lead us to look at the ways we raise our children as comparative to other families', and this can also lead to insecurity.

Homelearning parents in general are often confronted with the question 'what makes you think you are better qualified to teach your children than the school system?' We unschoolers then sometimes explain that we chose this path precisely because we are not teaching our children, but instead allowing them to learn on their own terms, on their own schedule, in their own ways, etc. etc. ... and then people get worried for our children's welfare and future prospects. So, predictably, some of us try to win people over with delightful stories of unschooling successes and triumphs. We tell all the good stories, because we want to ease people's minds and because actually many of us really truly love this journey we're on, and love to talk about it!

That's when some people get their hackles up. They ask whether we think there's something wrong with their method of schooling. Or they ask why we think we're so much better than they are. They defensively tell us that their children need such-and-such or that they want their children to have better options than we're providing (cue more encouraging unschooling success stories). Or they shrink away and say that their children are not smart/diligent/motivated enough to teach themselves. Worst of all, they tell us they feel we're looking down on them for not unschooling their own kids.

I am writing this today because I have finally come to a place in my unschooling journey where these things are mostly a memory, and I just realized how relieved I am. Maybe my circle of friends has been stable for long enough that everybody is comfortable in our own choices; maybe my kids are old enough that people have stopped worrying. Whatever the reason, boy am I glad to leave that behind me!

Today I had a lovely chat with a friend of mine who can well be described as a diligent and loving parent of diverse distributed learners who use a combination of classroom, mentor, online, and home-based schooling to accomplish their many goals. They are now deeply engaged with researching and planning for university, and my friend is a master organizer. Her family life is in many ways opposite to ours. While ours is messy, scattered and rich with surprises and adventures, hers is well-managed, orderly, and equally rich with surprises and adventures. Interestingly, some of our kids encounter similar challenges with their activities, and also have similar triumphs. We even arrive at some of the same places! The two of us have the most wonderful discussions about life and life-learning, school and home and parenting and community - and none of it with any judgment whatsoever. This is what it feels like, I think, to have left the insecurities of early unschooling behind, to not feel inclined to defend our chosen path, and to not feel the burden of others' defensiveness on our shoulders.

Obviously unschooling families have a reason for our choice to unschool our children, and for specifically how we unschool. We probably also think this is the best we can do for our kids, or we wouldn't have chosen it. That does not, however, mean that we think it's the best option for everyone, or that other families' choices are inferior. The world is a beautiful and diverse place. We are evolving faster because of our diversity, including the diversity of our children's upbringing and education. Whatever experiences we give our children, whether in or outside of the school system, directed or undirected, goal-oriented or free-range, will make them the people they become, and nourish their own individual futures. We can't know what will be best for them - we can only do what our hearts tell us is right.

So whoever you are out there, let's stop comparing. Whether your children sit in the most stringent academic classroom, or get their education from the stream running between their toes, I honour and respect the choices you have made for your children, and I am grateful we share this world together. Our children will inherit the diversity we have created among us, as well as our appreciation and acceptance of it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

teen unschooling home day

My kids - how I love them.

Our current form of unschooling is an assortment of self-directed activities on the mainland with other teens, and four days at home on the island every week (although with ballet and singing lessons thrown into one of the island days).

Today is one of the days my kids don't attend any activities on the mainland. I'm in the office writing proposals, Markus is on his computer telecommuting, and the kids are out in the kitchen making dried apples and garlic cheese knots, listening to their music and laughing.

Having teens isn't always difficult. It's just a bit over-the-top with everything.

Today it's over-the-top peace and joy in my house.

Days like this make the difficult days vanish from my mind - just like looking into their glistening eyes made the trials of birthing them disappear. I never even felt the doctors stitching me up, but I can remember the feeling of my tiny ones' little bodies against my own skin, their tiny damp foreheads and cheeks against my lips, and the giant sobbing of joy overtaking me as I fell in love. My kids give me the opportunity to fall in love on a regular basis. What more can I want from life?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Love Trafficking

My son just defined this for me. Love trafficking is any of those seemingly loving actions that is actually just a form of currency, benefiting the person who's doing it (but only in the moment).

Here are some examples, not at all taken from our personal lives, but just to illustrate the point:
  • You're angry with your daughter, so you treat her friends with extreme kindness, while maintaining an angry attitude with her, privately.
  • You're loving the baby extra-expressively to make the older sibling feel jealous or unwanted, because she did something you disapproved of.
  • You're calling the cat to prove that she'll come to you instead of to your partner. Because she loves you more.
  • You drop by your sister's house to make her feel extra special... because you just fought with your partner.
  • You give your Dad extra affection because you're mad at your mother.
  • You use your love for someone as a punishment for someone else.
  • You behave in a loving way in an effort to gain favour or something else you want.
  • You love someone but take the love back as punishment.

Love trafficking is not uncommon. My kid noticed it happening in his world and came up with the name, and I think maybe we all need to take note. Maybe people who grow up dealing love as a currency haven't even noticed that that's what they're doing, and maybe they're not intending even to do it.

Love trafficking hurts. Especially when we realize our emotional response to the love we received was just us catching a spear on someone else's battlefield. It hurts when the love we were handed is rescinded with interest, and we realize we were just an investment. If you are the recipient of someone else's love-trafficking affection, you will one day be the indebted, too. If you are trafficking in love, yourself, you will always feel indebted. 

Love isn't a currency. Love is a boundless self-perpetuating energy source. I still love everyone I have ever loved, no matter what has occurred between us. Love is that undefinable billowing blindness that allows us to carry on living. It's the food our spirits need to survive, and, like food, when it's used as a currency it can lead to disorders.

Ask yourself when you are giving love, whether that love bears a cost; ask yourself when you are accepting love whether it comes with a price. Ask yourself when you're reaping the spoils of your love in resentment and jealousy and tears whether the cost is worth it.

I'd like to suggest that many of us use love as a currency, at least unintentionally.  I'd like to suggest we stop, now.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


It has been an interesting year, full of changes and surprises. I am as always grateful for those who love me, and who love each other, and for those who allow me to love them. Sometimes we have to reach blindly with trembling arms and choked voices to accept others despite our preconceptions, shame and broken hearts; sometimes we have to close our eyes and let the compassion of others encircle us even when it terrifies us. Love isn't ever easy; isn't ever straightforward or predictable, but without it we are nothing. I am grateful for love.

Autumn Gifts

Such a beautiful time of harvest and gratitude. Our family has been rather more busy than usual, and we haven't taken very many photos, but I thought it was time to update with a few photos of the gifts that have come into our lives, this season. Happy Thanksgiving!

Beautiful chilly autumn rains and winds and sunshine, inspiring the mushrooms to pop out and decorate the forest.

Sunflowers in their final glory.
Annie's quinces heading for their final glory.
Firewood season!

My beautiful 12-year-old.
Our blooming turmeric!!

The single little (delicious) cantaloupe we managed to grow...

My happy children enjoying their new city life.

...and their island life. How blessed we are.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Talking with Kids about Sexual Harassment and Objectification

A line in the sand. Photo by Taliesin.
It seems that people all over social media are talking about sexual harassment and objectification in the wake of Trump's pussy-grabbing comments. People ask whether objectification even matters, or whether it matters more for women than for men. Women and men are talking about whether there's a line to be crossed, where it is, and how grey it is. Is all objectification bad, and when does it become sexual harassment? Men are confessing to having made lewd comments in the past and valiantly declaring they'll stop now. Parents are talking about how and whether to discuss this with their children, how to raise liberated girls and thoughtful boys, and many of us are claiming that our children are either too young to think such things, or too mature; too thoughtful to say them. And we know they don't do it. So I decided to talk with my children about it.

The first thing I discovered is that we parents are deluded. Some of the kids who are touted on social media as the kids who would never say such things are, in fact, saying such things in the presence of my children. Apparently, according to my fourteen-year-old son, “most boys” talk like that, or play video games, watch videos and read things that objectify women. They just don't do it when adults are listening. The word pussy doesn't phase my son, although he suggested I don't include it in this article. He didn't even blink when I said it. My daughter just squirmed in her seat, but declined to respond. So enough of pretending my kids are innocent, and onto the issues. I can suck up my feigned parental innocence when I need to.

I called a family meeting and went straight to the point: Complimenting people. When does a compliment become objectification? Do you believe that there's a line to be crossed? And where?

My husband stepped in first: “To say that there is a line that you can be on the right or wrong side of is an over-simplification.”

And my daughter replied, “If you're talking about someone, it depends on what they think the line is. If they don't think it's offensive, why should you not be able to say it?”

Her father pressed his point: “So if it's a complete stranger walking past you downtown, how do you decide what you're saying?”

“Well that's not OK,” she said.

“How do you decide?” He pressed again.

Things always seem simpler to my twelve-year-old daughter, and she looked at him incredulously. “Don't say things about strangers. I don't say things about strangers. I don't need to. I don't know them.”

But her father has grown up in our culture, and could not be talked over so easily. “People constantly tell me I have a nice beard, especially if they have one of their own. I think it's nice when they say it.”

And my kids both sat thinking. I think we all know that's a classic argument. It's OK for me to pet a black person's hair because I wouldn't mind if someone petted mine. That's the all-lives-matter stance, and it's wrong. It's wrong because certain minorities live in a constant state of oppression because of our actions, and we need to be very mindful of that. That issue needs our attention right now more than the issues of all of our lives. For a man to feel justified in complimenting a woman on her hair (or her breasts, legs, or smile) because he enjoys it when people compliment his beard is a fallacy for the same reason. Women have lived for thousands of years in a state of oppression because of the objectification of our bodies, and men haven't. My husband thinks he's making this point for the sake of argument, to incite conversation. But it takes away from the important truth that compliments being made about women come with a cost to women – an expectation of something given back: love, sex, thanks, a smile, etc. If we aren't outrightly told what is expected of us in return, then we know simply because we've heard it before, from the moment of our birth. For thousands of years girls and women have been objectified. It's just the way the world works, so that by the time we enter school we understand that our value in the world does not depend on our contributions to that world, but upon our physical usefulness.

So no matter how lovingly compliments are given to us, we lose something in every compliment given.

Should men then never compliment women? My husband feels worried about complimenting women. He feels like he can't take any step in the right direction. My son is learning this from both of us, but he's also witnessing how much it hurts his mother to never receive a compliment. I think if we don't want to be objectified, we also have to give our men some avenue towards success. I asked my kids how they think we can make women feel good about who they are, without objectifying them.

For my daughter, this is as straightforward as the last question. “Girls that I know never compliment people. Sometimes they say 'nice haircut' or something if someone got a new haircut, but only to their friends that they know well. Not to someone who's just sitting there. There's always a reason. I don't think they'd ever compliment someone they don't know.”

My son says, “It seems like men who love women would respect women more, because they love them.” But when I ask him how to respect them; how to compliment them, he is dumbstruck, and eventually mutters, “you could talk about their personality, I guess.” But do people do that?" I asked him. He doesn't know.

There is a lot we don't know. There is a lot we don't talk about. There is a lot that we shove to the back of our minds under pretenses that all-genders-matter and our-sons-would-never-do-that. There is a lot that we do that needs to be brought out in the limelight.

I don't think the rampant media coverage of Donald Trump's despicable behaviour has been a good thing, in the present, for our culture. He is bringing out the worst in us all. But it's also bringing it up for conversation, and that, after all, is the best way to move forward.

I have faith in us as a species to take the dirty shameful realities that are now being paraded out in the sunlight and do the work to heal them. I have faith in us as parents to not hide behind the pretenses we need to believe in, but to be the change our children need to see in the world, and to talk about it openly, all the time. Don't tell your children the way the world works; ask them how their world works. You may be surprised to hear what they know. You may be surprised to discover that your children are not innocent after all, and that is precisely why their voices matter so much in this conversation. Let's pull on our boots and wade into the mire of this murky problem with open ears, open minds and open hearts.

Friday, October 7, 2016

I love you, but I don't own you

Today on the bus I listened to a passenger talking to the driver about a female driver he finds very attractive. The passenger described her, saying that she should wear her hair down, because he'd like to see her with her hair down and wearing makeup. Because she's beautiful, so she should. I'm sure you can imagine what I was thinking. I was livid. Obviously. And so very tired of listening to women being appraised like used cars, and told what to do to increase their value. I imagined the bus driver felt the same way, listening to one of his colleagues degraded like that. He seemed like a nice guy, after all.

But no. He proceeded to give all kinds of information about his colleague: her name, her relationship status, the relationship and school status of her children, and which bus she was driving, today. The passenger got off grinning, and said he was on his way to find [her name].

Yes, I wrote to the bus company. But that's not enough. The bus driver is a nice guy. He was trying to be friendly to both his passenger and his colleague. The problem is that neither he nor the passenger sees the problem. Our cultural problem (which translates to a public safety problem, among many others) is firstly a lack of understanding that women are not property, and that is something that we as parents actually have a huge capacity to change.

It starts when our babies are born. It starts with the moment we realize that their lives depend on our decisions, so we start making decisions for them. We know better than they do. Necessarily, we teach them to follow our schedules and to grow to be like us. We reward them with affection when they please us. And then it begins to change. We begin to reward them for their accomplishments... and along the way we do this more for boys than for girls. We reward girls more for prettiness. Don't imagine it's not true. Look around. Even those of us who tried very very hard not to gender-stereotype our children, who bought our little boys dolls and pink tutus and took our girls out adventuring and playing with trucks -- we fell victim to our own gendered history and we told our girls they were pretty. We taught our boys they could be pretty too, especially if they wore a head full of butterfly clips and nail polish, and we thought we were being gender-neutral. We weren't. We were teaching them the conventions to which they would need to adhere when they left the security of our embrace. It's a different world outside the security of our embrace, and we are complicit in that.

Today at the library I heard two men talking about the many times they've been harassed by 'gay men' who pursed their lips at them, who looked at them too much, and who talked to them too kindly as if they thought they would be "interested". They knew these men were gay because they had done these things. They talked about how they wanted to kill these men; how maybe next time they would break their necks. This is the world our tutu-clad boys walk out into, and I promise you they will not be safe there, with butterfly clips in their hair. It's not that we're endangering them with the false idea that their gender doesn't matter; it's that our sons will be those men who are so afraid of other-ness that they want to destroy it. 
By the time our boys are four or five they know that it's dangerous to be "pretty" in public. By the time our girls are the same age, they know that their social status and even safety depends on being pretty in public. Have you ever passed out an assortment of coloured objects to a group of kids? How many girls will fight tooth-and-nail to get the pink ones? How many boys will fight equally hard not to? My daughter tells me that she and her friends only used to like pink because everybody else did. Every other girl, that is. At four years old, my son's favourite colour was pink. But that was a secret. At four years old they were already trained to conform or be left behind, to please or be rejected; to fit into the gender roles we taught them, or to perish.

Perish. Does that sound extreme? It's not. A baby knows that its life depends on its parent. A baby screams for food and affection, and eventually learns more positive methods of getting these essential needs: cooing, pleasing, pleading, and eventually asking. So as parents we reward them. In this simple exchange we have taught them that their lives depend on pleasing us.

As new parents we were aware of this, so we tried hard to allow them to be their own people. But as time went on we told them that if they cleaned their rooms they could have dessert. We told them that if they asked sweetly they could have a ride to school. We told them that if they said they loved us they could have a cuddle. We praised them for doing as they were told. Silently, we told them that their value depended on how well they pleased us. We owned them. 

And as mothers we taught them how to be in relationships. In the evenings when their Daddies came home we rewarded their hard days' work with dinner, and their Daddies rewarded us with affection. They told us we were beautiful and in an effort to honour us they told us we should take time to go get our hair done. Make ourselves pretty. And our daughters heard them, and asked to get their hair done too. And our sons heard them and checked out the girls at school, wondering if they'd had their hair done, or what that even meant.

And our children went to school and to friends' houses, and to parties and coffee shops and their first jobs and their second jobs, and they fell in love and told each other they were pretty. And they had babies, and they loved their babies so much that they kissed them when they cooed and they bought them ice creams when they followed the rules, and they dressed them in pretty clothes and taught them how to please their superiors. 

And I still long for someone to tell me I'm pretty.

Today is my daughter's birthday. She's twelve years old and right now she wants to be a pop star. She really loves pink and frills and powerful female vocalists and building stuff in the wood shop at school and sitting in trees writing stories and plays and essays. But this morning I thanked her for being so wonderful. As if she's doing it for me. I told her she's beautiful. As if my assessment of her should matter; as if somehow on the market for pre-teen girls I've just upgraded her value.


I don't want her to be the bus driver whose life and safety is determined by well-meaning men, but I told her she should wash her hair so people don't see it greasy at school. I don't want her to be the pop singer whose lyrics are secondary to the way she moves her bum, but I put her in ballet to help her acquire poise for her desired singing career. I don't want her to be the mother who longs for someone to tell her she's pretty just so she can go to bed at night feeling that she was worth something. But I do that every day.
I've tried so hard these past twelve years to raise my daughter with the knowledge that my opinions are less important than her own; that her value depends only on herself. But in a million small ways I have owned her and judged her and made her dependent on those things.

The kind of massive cultural change we need doesn't happen overnight, or even over a generation, but with each action I take and each thought that transits my mind I have an opportunity to push a little further in the direction of equality and freedom. The prize right now is not the end-goal. I don't know if there's ever an end-goal. But the prize is to be mindful of the work we're doing now, in this generation. Today. It is to look into our children's faces right now and say, "I love you, but I don't own you".
My darling daughter, you are beautiful to me, but it doesn't matter what I think. You are cherished by me, but there is nothing you can do to change that. I appreciate when you help me, but your usefulness as a person does not depend on that. I feel wonderful when you hug me, but only when you want to hug me. I feel happy when you are happy, but I appreciate the times we've been sad together, too. I don't like all of the songs you like, but I like that you have your own opinions. I like the way you've cut your hair, but what I like most is that it was your idea, and that you did it because you wanted to. I love you, but I don't own you.