Wandering folk/mind the gap

“The train on platform two goes to central station. Please mind the gap.”

The familiar droll announcement on the Sydney train network greets us when we first arrive back in Australia. I stand at the station, jetlagged, exhausted and with tears in my eyes, letting the routine, dependable noise wash over me.

After a flat white and a lamington under a winding fig tree, we’re off and away to my brother’s house in Canberra, but the gap is ahead of us:

A strange by-product of moving between the US and Australia every few years is the period we’re living right now – when work, housing, cars and all the routines that keep us grounded are not [yet] secured.

It’s either an empty space, a gap in our lives, or a long holiday – depending on how you think about it.

Although I now have more time to lie in bed with the kids, rock hop on big granite boulders at the creek and breathe in the sweet smell of flowering pittosporum, I can’t shake the feeling that life gaps are associated with negative events.

It seems we take gaps only when we are forced to, and that these times are often thought of as setbacks or gaps in the resume. We take time off because we are caring for a loved one, caring for our own health or in a period of unemployment.

Although we’ve chosen our current situation, and planned for it financially, I feel the absence of routine – every day is wide open, a Wednesday just as good as a Saturday for hours spent reading the paper over coffee.

Haak and I find ourselves having regular meeting-chats to narrow our focus and cocoon our goals.

Not having a job title, project or business to identify with feels a little raw in our society which values economically productive work above all else.

Wanting to find out more about how to thrive outside the bounds of 9-5, I talked to Sharnee Thorpe of Wandering Folk [who happens to be a family friend] to find out how someone who has designed a [gorgeous!] range of waterproof outdoor picnic rugs, pillows and coolers and shaped her life around the idea of freedom and travel deals with the ups and downs of being on the move.

Sharnee laughed when I suggested she was an expert traveller. “I’d like to think I’m an expert on wandering,” she said, “my family was always travelling and I knew from a young age that I wanted to work hard so I could travel more.”

There’s a well-known phenomenon in Australia, known as a gap year, often taken between high school and uni [college], when young people are excused from having a proper job and encouraged to travel, work seasonal or temporary jobs and explore the world.

Australians have worked at least this bit of socially-sanctioned free time into our culture, while Americans tend to jump straight from high school to college to a full-time job to cover the higher costs of health insurance and student loans.

Sharnee echoes the Australian ethos when she says: ” travelling is more important than university. Travel first then go to uni. Travel teaches you everything you need to know in life – how to live on a tight budget and make your money last, how to make new friends, learn a new language and learn about new cultures.”

Her 33,000 Instagram followers show that Sharnee’s life is appealing to many people – something to fantasize about when they are deep in the humdrum of work, gym, latte, meeting.

But having a business means never being away from work and Sharnee said she checks emails daily when in service. “As a freelance print designer and with running Wandering Folk, I always have to work when I’m travelling,” Sharnee told me, “it’s a blessing …and a curse at times.”

Sharnee has worked gaps into her working life, but not everyone is comfortable with so much change and lack of routine.

I’ve talked to two people in their 20’s since I’ve been back who are about to accept promotions and change jobs and both of them looked confused when I asked if they would take a few weeks or months off in between.

It’s not the done thing, but there’s good reason to pursue big changes and breaks in our lives, especially for encouraging creativity.

Sharnee says she tries to keep her work commitments to one day a week while she’s travelling, and saves big projects for when she is settled in her Northern NSW studio – but scrolling through Wandering Folk’s expansive Instagram feed, it’s clear that travel brings inspiration to Sharnee’s design work.22708792_132988623959006_8074818904829984768_n

Our friend Michael Menager, an American musician and songwriter who has lived in Australia for thirty years asked me last week how I was going with moving back.

We were doing some digging to level out Michael’s new deck area, and when I answered that it was a bit gappy but going well, he squinted at me in the bright Aussie sun, kicking up dust with his shovel, and said in his Aussiemerican accent “well, you know what I think? having these spaces in our lives is a good time to be creative. So get into your writing.”

So maybe I’ve been confusing a life-gap with emptiness and doing nothing. Wandering Folk functions because Sharnee works as hard as she plays, the beach picnics in her Instagram feed a well-earned reward for balancing work and play.

Finding small routines within a period of travel or uncertainty is helpful too. “Most of the places I travel now have yoga, which helps me keep in a vague routine and maintain my health while on the road,” Sharnee said, “but I do miss being able to cook my own meals while travelling – especially being vegetarian.”

37336396_256481315169211_1689244559168503808_n

There are only a few reasons people don’t feel like they, too, could become wandering folk. Money is one reason [re-structuring your financial commitments is possible barring unusual circumstances, check out my $20,000 annual budget here] identity and fear another.  But habit might be the most common reason.

Once we’re in the habit of a 9-5 routine, it feels impossible to imagine anything else.

If you threw it all in and took a sabbatical, what would bloom in the sweet panic of empty time and space?

It’s important to remember that you belong on the magic picnic rug as much as I do and Sharnee does. If you’d rather be dancing on an empty road and experience days stretched out ahead of you, or just think you might like to try it, go ahead.

This world is yours. [but pack speakers, Sharnee’s most-often used item when travelling].

Wandering folk don’t mind a gap. We just jump.

climb [Haakon climbing at Tantawanglo river. September 2018]

Special thanks to Sharnee Thorpe, who provided me with stunning pictures and the quote below.  Please buy one of Sharnee’s stunning weatherproof picnic rugs before you quit your job and can’t afford to anymore!

And check out the Wandering Folk website, Instagram and Facebook page for inspiration as to what your gap might look like …

 

“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ― Ibn Battut

 

 

Advertisements

Smoke gets in our lives

When we left Montana in early September, smoke from local and regional forest fires was thick, for the second summer in a row.

My tomatoes hung, unripe, on their bushes, a disappointing reminder of how little direct sun we had received this year. Dips in the lake were always accompanied by the throb of helicopters and light aircraft overhead.

The sorrow of losing the last bluebird days of summer to smog was nothing compared to the suffering of those who couldn’t go outside because of compromised lung function [there’s a few of them in Lincoln County because of a vermiculite mine that operated in Libby in the 70’s and 80’s].

When we returned to Australia a few weeks ago, we returned to smoke from bushfires. The Yankees Gap fire – a highly unusual winter fire which started last month and has burnt for over 30 days, flared up again on the day of our welcome-back picnic at Kianninny bay, driven by strong warm winds.

It’s unsurprising, given how dry it is, especially for this time of year [you can read my first impressions of arriving home to drought here]

When my brother drove us from Canberra to my parent’s place in rural NSW for the first time, the dry was evident, especially after living in the relatively wet and green forests of northwestern Montana.

As Laurie drove us closer to mum and dad’s house, along their dirt track driveway, and saw the bush full of tall, dead wattles draped in long strands of crackly bark, I said: “you know what this place needs?”.

My brother and I looked at each other and at the tinderbox out the car windows and said in unison “a good fire.”

Despite summer after summer of preparation for the inevitable, for over 30 years the bush around my parent’s place has never burnt. Perhaps this will be the year.

In many ways, in Montana and in the Bega Valley, it’s the same story. A noticeable increase in the frequency of wildfires year by year. An increase in how hot each fire burns, and in how long it’s out of control for – and in how many structures are lost.

But the narrative I hear about wildfire is vastly different in each country, in each place. Here on the far south coast of NSW, a dominant narrative is about human-induced climate change – words that are never spoken in rural Montana.

Instead, the narrative in conservative Montana is that because environmentalists [often presumed to live elsewhere/in California] have held up logging operations with litigation, causing economic decline, the loss of a beloved timber industry and now ever-worsening wildfires.

A Facebook post that circulated a month ago showed the rage felt by some rural Montanans towards this “other”: “…. all you environmentalists that wanted to save our forests up here, I’m inviting you to live in what we have to now, you think air pollution is bad right now where you are? Let me tell you, when you can smell smoke from your basement, and you have ash raining down on you on a daily basis, then we can talk. I invite you to our state of Montana, so you can see what your responsible for. You might think lightning is responsible, but in all reality it’s your ignorant thought processes that hold up timber sales and logging in litigation that leads to disasters like this.”

Ironically, the environmentalists living in California and trying to stop logging in the north-west are living in a state that has had a hell of a fire season for the last few years, so it’s safe to say that smoke gets in their eyes too.

In the last few days, firefighters have finally contained the Mendocino fire, the largest and longest burning fire in California’s history. The blaze has killed a firefighter, destroyed 280 structures and covered an area about the same the size as California’s beloved sprawling city, Los Angles.

While everyone looks for someone to blame for the increase out-of-control wildfires, one thing is clear: the fires affect everyone, rich and poor. While money, to some extent, can provide an escape, our recent global trip showed a sameness about this year’s extreme heat and dry that is unavoidable.

A quick peek in the Guardian this morning confirmed the global nature of this year’s heat – Africa recorded it’s hottest ever temperature [of 51. 3C! that’s 123 F] at a weather station in the Sahara desert, and Sweden, a country which usually experiences an average of three wildfires in a summer, has had over 50 this year.

While global warming is certainly implicated, other weather factors, such as a weak jet stream [a core wind pattern that moves weather around the globe] and changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic [known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] are at play as well.

[Thanks to Simon at simonsweather.org who first explained these concepts to me].

The Facebook post which circulated this summer in Montana ends cheerfully and with an admirable maturity level: “We as Montanan’s, and I as well, think I can say this for the entire state to personally hold you responsible for what our living conditions are. And you wonder why we don’t like you!

On the subject of heat and fire, it’s clear that my Montana community is not alone in searching for someone or something to blame.

But we must think globally on this one – humans don’t like extreme heat and dry and we don’t like how accustomed to the milky blue haze we are becoming.

Smoke is in our lives and it makes us all anxious, searching for an escape route, or an escape goat, or a scapegoat.  Like the animals we are.

group crop

Smoky goodbye party at beautiful Milnor Lake, Troy, Montana. Late August 2018.

 

 

 

 

For roadkilled native animals, the problem is the solution.

It’s an iconic Australian sight – the solid dark mass of a dead wombat on the side of a dusty country road, one stout leg thrown up as if in warning to other animals.

One every now and then, sure, but the sheer number of roadkill deaths hit me as we drove from Canberra to my parents’ place with my brother last week – kangaroos and wombats in various stages of decay were clustered along the roadside in groups of four, five, six.

My family and I have just moved back to my hometown of Bega, NSW from Montana, a US state which has a strong culture of hunting [and has had a hunting season in effect since 1872!] a fact which means the native animal populations of common animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep there are kept in check.

There are, of course, roadkill deaths in Montana but a new scavenging law introduced a few years ago means that those who are hit are quickly moved off roadways – and eaten.

When we left Montana, the contents of our freezer included white wrapped packages labeled “roadkill buck,” meat that was gifted to us by a friend who saw a deer hit and salvaged it.

[Thanks to our friend Ben’s humor, we also had packages of meat in our freezer labeled “tender meat snake” (instead of the more conventional “backstrap” and “tenderloin”)]

“Were there always this many roadkill animals?” I asked my brother, wondering if three years away had caused me to gloss over the reality of the situation.

“Nah, it’s just really bad at the moment because of the drought,” Laurie answered.

It is dry. It’s not the driest I’ve seen this land, but the grass is shorn down to brown stubble and the creek makes a narrow path through its bed.

The dry is causing animals to roam further to find food and water, crossing more roads in the process.

Looking out the car window at the carnage, I can’t help but wonder: could Australia learn from Montana’s long history of managing its native animal populations?

On the same road we were traveling – the Snowy Mountains Highway – our mate Zac counted 200 dead roos one night this winter driving the 20 minutes between Canberra and Michalago.

“It was the combination of it being a Friday night and there being lots of snow traffic,” Zac said, “I stopped counting when I got to 200.”

Zac also told me that the owner of the Tathra caravan park had mentioned that her international visitors had been distraught at seeing so many roadkilled animals – the very animals they had come to see and hoped to see hopping and fluffy, not smeared on the highway.

Australia’s success as a tourism destination relies, at least in part, on healthy populations of native animals. But historically, white settlers have not been good stewards to native animals – the Tasmanian tiger was declared extinct in the early 1930’s, the result of overzealous hunting and koalas were taken to the brink of extinction, shot for their thick fur.

Australia protects by law the majority of native plants and animals. In my state, NSW, native animals are currently protected under the biodiversity conservation act of 2016.

But have we taken it too far?

Australians eat vast quantities of meat every year, more than any developed country in the world, according to the world economic forum website. Reading this, a gem from a permaculture course I took years ago in New Zealand floats to the top of my mind: the problem is the solution.

Although Aussies have come to terms with the idea of eating native animals [kangaroos are now hunted commercially and roo meat is commonly available in supermarkets and restaurants] the mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of harvesting the meat ourselves.

DSCF3454

Roo meat is very similar to venison – lean and dark – but in recent years, I’ve not heard of anyone eating other Aussie animals.

Wombat, by folklore, is tough and chewy [there’s a song about wombat stew: “ewey gooey yummy chewy wombat stew”] and tales of early white settlers include despondent descriptions of living on nothing but pumpkin and bear [koala].

While we may not be able to do anything to make wombat taste good, a roadkill salvage culture and the associated laws or indeed, a huntings season similar to Montana’s would at least save some kangaroo meat from being wasted.

Meanwhile, good people ease the suffering of animals by doing clean up on our roads, rescuing infant kangaroos and wombats from the pouches of their road killed mothers and euthanizing where necessary.

This morning we went to see an old family friend, Pauline, who is 76 and a very busy volunteer with WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization.

Pauline has five babies in her care, four kangaroos and one wombat, which she keeps in woolly shoulder bags to mimic a pouch.

pauline crop

Pauline’s orphans were rescued out of their mother’s pouches or found wandering on their own but still needing milk to survive. Once they hit the magic weight of six kilos, they will be weaned and released onto the bush property of another WIRES volunteer and eventually into the wild.

E crop

The work that Pauline and her fellow volunteers do is pressing right now [she said WIRES takes in several new animals every day in this region] and her access to these cuddly animals delighted my American tourist children, who, two weeks into our time in Australia, still shriek every time they see a kangaroo or wombat.

 

 

But the work of WIRES doesn’t address the overall problem – which is that the populations of these animals continue to grow in good seasons unchecked, leaving a large population to die slowly when the drought inevitably returns [Australia has a shortage of native predators, with birds of prey and the dingo at the top of the chain].

Native animals are officially protected in Australia, but the way I see it, we’re not doing everything we can to protect them.

But we can – we have hardworking scientists at our disposal who could come up with a sustainable solution for kangaroo and wombat populations which would thrill animal lovers, meat lovers and your car insurance company in equal parts.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Purge is the word

I don’t know quite when it started, but sometime in the last few weeks, without talking about it, Haak and I moved into moving mode – we are getting shit done. Things on the to-do list for months or years are being nailed down [and oh, that only took AN HOUR?].

In five short weeks, we will be moving back to Australia after three years of living in Montana. I have this image of us flying into a Sydney dawn as we have so many times before, pointing out the water to the kids and trembling with the anticipation of hearing Australian accents all around, seeing the vegetation, smelling the air.

But the more times we do this, the more nervous I get. We’re 35 this year. We’re not travelling twentysomethings anymore. There are two kids to consider and shouldn’t we be working on our future security?

It feels now like I’m about to do a huge bell flop when I imagine looking down on Sydney. Here we coooMMMEEEeeee!

In between checking off our to-do list,  Haak and I  pace anxiously and snap at each other. We’re not leaving for over a month, so you could say this was premature. But the desire to beat the clock, to somehow be halfway moved now so we can enjoy some lake time before having to complete the move has overcome us.

It won’t work, of course, but after doing this a few times, I do believe in decision fatigue and getting some of those tiny decisions made before we hit that point makes sense.

There is always that one box when we’re unpacking that has all the things in it we just couldn’t make a decision about and you can tell: it’s stuffed carelessly with all the fucks we didn’t give, about to board the plane.

Moving countries is really the same as moving across one country but somehow produces a higher anxiety level. There is no driving back to get something you forgot and no overnight courier service to Australia.

When we get on the plane in five short weeks, we’ll each have a bag and that’s all. Some clothes, a book, some toiletries. The kids will stuff every available space in their bags with rocks and broken plastic toys and toilet rolls.

Just like we were going on a week-long trip.

In some ways, I love the purge – although I’m not a collector by nature [and Haakon is often firmly rescuing things I’ve put in the thrift store pile or recycling] our moving cycle ensures that all those weird things that add up over the years are eventually looked at, and reconsidered.

When I woke up this morning, it was with a clear idea of looking in our top most kitchen cabinets for items to purge. In the backup tea department, I found iced blueberry green tea powder.

I’m sure I didn’t buy it. It sounds disgusting. So how the heck is it there? Flotsam and jetsom tea that happened to be spinning past and get stuck in our orbit. Space junk.

As we move towards the final pack up, the concurrent using up and rationing become more intense: Can we live without cinnamon for a month? what about baking soda? a drizzle of maple syrup is all that is left. I’m certainly not going to buy a whole half gallon again, but can you buy the right amount of syrup for four possible pancake weekends?

And how can I use up the full jar of celery salt and half a kilo of coriander seeds I seem to have?

With these questions comes a curiously morbid desire to bequeath things to people I love. While Shawna loaded the cement mixer, I solemnly left her all the good tea I won’t drink in five weeks.

A bottle of oyster sauce will go to someone who raved about my greens with garlic and oyster sauce, our walnuts to Madeline for her delicious walnut bread. The end of a ten-pound bag of split peas to my mother-in-law, who makes excellent soup.

And then, in a flurry of decision fatigue, we’ll stuff all the odds and ends of food in a box and guiltily leave it on Shawna and Ben’s porch, or with Haak’s parents, so they can hold onto that full jar of celery salt, never using it, and give it back to us in three years.

Sometimes the continuity of space junk can be comforting.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

What do you use celery salt for????

We too

I admit I avoided participating in the #metoo movement which swept social media late last year. Oh, I knew then that I’ve been sexually threatened, but the whole thing seemed too murky – I say #metoo and everyone wonders: was she raped? whistled at? grabbed?

I assumed people would wonder about me, but I never asked any of the hundreds of women who hashtagged in my social media feeds: what happened? which experience do you think of when you hashtag #metoo? and are you OK?

I’ve come to realize that #metoo needs another step. We’re so accustomed to thinking of ourselves and other women as victims that the hashtag confessions hit us like a wave, washing over us the feeling of something we already knew.

Although there was liberation in confessing that we had been hurt without repercussions, the details of what happened to the women who hashtagged [and those, like me, who could have but didn’t] in a way don’t matter anymore.

Many of them couldn’t press charges, which is one of the bummers of sexual assault – washable evidence.

But the useful thing that can come out of the movement is for all victims of sexual violence to feel so enraged at being violated that they are compelled to report the crime, right now, immediately … while the evidence is still fresh.

Not as a hashtag confession months or years later.

When I was researching for a local newspaper article I wrote about sexual assault early this spring, I spoke to many women who had been assaulted. Every single one spoke about the period after the attack as being traumatic in some way – whether recalling the attack, confessing, testifying or having evidence collected.

One of the women I interviewed has crossed my thoughts so many times since we met. I first met Tracy at the elementary school she works at and she was warm and friendly – one of those people you just like instantly.

We met in a diner on an icy February day and sat in the back room, cradling thick white coffee mugs, and Tracy told me that she had been raped twice while serving in the military.

Tracy let me understand the process of re-victimization through evidence collection that I had known only as a theory before –

“When I reported the first rape, they took evidence. It was horrific, the two nurses were so cold” Tracy told me “they pulled hairs from my butt hole and the whole time I kept thinking: why aren’t they pulling hairs from HIS butt hole?”

As she was talking, Tracy was half laughing and half crying, and I was weeping too. How could anyone hurt the strong, wonderful woman I saw before me?

It is slowly dawning on the western world the burden that women carry everywhere they go – how much effort goes into selecting clothes, choosing routes, checking shadows, looking back, charging cell phones, communicating our whereabouts and wondering who we can trust.

But we need more understanding and instruction so that when someone talks about sexual assault, whether that assault happened 40 years ago or ten minutes ago, we lean in and ask more – because it can compound the hurt and add shame if we don’t.

There have been two occasions I would say #metoo about – one was when I was 21 and traveling in Amsterdam and stayed with someone I had just met – a young man and his wife and baby.

This man, with no prior warning, tackled me while I was getting out of the shower in the morning and I ran out of the tiny apartment dripping wet, grabbing my huge backpack on the way to my train to Paris and leaving a soggy towel behind a bush in the front garden.

When I got to Paris, I told the woman I was staying with what had happened, and she berated me for trusting a stranger. She didn’t ask if I was OK. She just very squarely blamed me for staying with someone I didn’t know.

In contrast, my second experience, which happened in the same era of my life, had a happier ending.

I was hanging out and drinking with two guys I knew from high school, but neither very well. One started to pressure me for sex, and the other guy looked at him squarely and said “you’re being a dick. I think you should go outside and calm down.”

He did, and I went home and, being 20, never acknowledged either man’s actions again. I should probably write a thank you letter to my defender’s parents for raising a man who was full of matter-of-fact respect.

Years have passed since those incidents, and a few days ago, I realized how protected I am from daily dealings with strange men when I was approached while waiting in line at the King Scoopers in Arvada, Denver.

“You’re cute,” a 40 ish man with a ponytail told me “are you married?”

The words themselves – unthreatening. The whole interaction – scary as hell, especially given how unprepared I was, and how deep into reading about Harry and Meagan Markle’s home life.

Last month, a 22-year-old comedian named Eurydice Dixon was raped and killed in a popular Melbourne park. When I lived in Melbourne when I was 22, I walked and rode through a lot of parks at night.

The response to Dixon’s death shows that the mainstream narrative around violence against women in Australia is stretching, and may even be on the cusp of shattering the ways women are blamed for being attacked by men.

National newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Clementine Ford which criticized the police response to Dixon’s violent death.

Melbourne police issued statements encouraging calls to 000 [Australia’s version of 911] by anyone who didn’t feel safe. Local Superintendent David Clayton warned, “This is an area of high community activity… so just make sure you have situational awareness.”

Speaking about rape and murder as being part of community activity normalizes the way Dixon died, and neatly leaves out a call to perpetrator’s: if you feel violent, or worry that you may rape someone, please call 000 for help.

Ford writes in response:

“The language used towards women when we exercise caution is contradictory at best and disdainful and mocking at worst. Exercise caution, but stop being so paranoid. Be prepared for danger, but don’t treat individual men like they might be a threat to you. Don’t put yourselves in harm’s way, but quit acting hysterical about every little shadow that crosses your path. Be wary of strange men, but don’t you dare be wary of me.”

Police officers are often first responders for sexual assault and have a great responsibility to respond well. As part of my sexual assault article, I spoke to the chief of police in nearby Libby, Montana – Scott Kessel.

Scott was concerned that in his year in Libby, there had been no reports of sexual assault.

“It’s either positive or ominous,” he said, “and I suspect the latter.”

Our county health nurse, Riley Black, is working with Scott and the police force to make reporting sexual assault easier. As it stands, victims in our rural community have to travel two hours to Kalispell to be examined for evidence, but Riley will soon be opening a clinic in Libby specifically for sexual assault examination.

“I want it to be as comfortable as possible,” Riley told me “so it doesn’t feel like a punishment to be examined.”

Riley, who is herself a victim of sexual assault, was one of the only women I interviewed for the article who didn’t appear to blame herself for the attack. She never once said “I was so naive”, as the majority of women did.

This, as well as Riley’s warm and direct presence, make her the ideal person talk to about a sexual assault, someone who would lift you out of doubt and never ask “what were you doing/wearing/saying?” but instead ask “how could he?”

In a Denver supermarket last week, the ponytailed man responded to my confusion and back-off vibes correctly: he came up to me, eyes lowered and said gruffly “you have a great evening.”

Whew.

As  I left the store, I peered around the entrance, checking around the pallets of flowers and fruit for the man. In the blazing sun in the car park, with bags full of organic blueberries and bread for my kids, I checked over my shoulder.

I longed a little for my 21-year-old pre-Amsterdam self, who would have assumed all was well and drifted on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The glut – morel season

 

One of the things that blows my mind about this part of the world – north-west Montana – is how much food people forage, hunt and preserve.

Australia has wild food too, enough to sustain indigenous people for 60,000 years, but aside from the obvious – seafood and game meat [yes, kangaroo!] – bush food is more subtle than the dripping berry bushes we see here in the summer.

Or maybe bush food is just less in line with modern tastes, so fewer people utilize it.

We went mushroom picking yesterday, and this morning I woke up to the funky, sweet smell of morel mushrooms drying in the dehydrator.

Morels are wild mushrooms that appear mostly in low-intensity fire sites in the spring. I’d never done any serious mushroom picking until yesterday, and my only experience with morels was that some friends gave us some dried morels a few years ago.

Because we had them, I threw a handful in a soup or stew every now and again, not really believing that the grey, dry, unscented pieces of mushroom would contribute anything to the dish.

It took me quite a few stews to realize that the elusive funky flavour was the dried morels.

I don’t actually like the smell of drying morels. It’s pretty cloying. But morels are like fish sauce, or dried shrimp – when I smell them cooking, it’s not good – but the flavour in a finished dish is somehow different, and welcome.

Knowing that it’s not unusual for people to find fields of morels, and come back with gallons of mushrooms, we took plenty of bags, and set off into some dense burn area alongside a creek and beside a logging unit.

Our kids are 3 and 6 now and can hike a few miles, and we also had my mum with us, visiting from Australia.

mum 2

Our area had some widespread wildfire last year, and the Forest Service opened up parts of the burn area to commercial mushroom pickers, so most of the burnt forest had already been canvassed – we could see clusters of hollow white morel stems under trees, cut with a knife.

No wonder the pickers had picked it over – morels are hard, if not impossible, to cultivate, so wild, foraged mushrooms are the bulk of the market, and fresh morels sell for anything between $50 to $150 a pound.

We traipsed on, over fallen, charred trees. The ground, burnt so hard, was down to clay, and after spring rainstorms, was very slippery [In Montana, we would say “slick”].

And then we found one small morel and another. The further from the road we got, the more we found, and the closer we looked, the more we stopped, the more we could spot them, the caps disguised as pinecones.

 

I was actually relieved we didn’t come into a glut of mushrooms, but rather, one or three here and there – this year, we are heading back to Australia in September, just before the major harvest/preserving/hunting season begins, and I’m being careful to whittle away at our food supplies, not build them up.

But it feels strange to go against the grain of the season – to harvest the glut, and put it away to provide a small comfort in February when nothing grows, and it seems like nothing ever will again.

I guess the morel of the story is, use what’s right in front of you.

I know that when we go back to Australia, Haak and I will apply for the permit to kill and eat a kangaroo on my parent’s property, and when mango season comes around, I’ll buy a flat and freeze the cheeks to use in smoothies later.

There is still so much I have to learn about living in my own country and climate, but what I’ve learnt in Montana about freezing, drying, fermenting and canning food has made me see a glut as more than overwhelming – to see it as an opportunity, not to be wasted.

And I’ll be on hand for morel support for any Aussies who want to work the glut more, although we’re spoilt in having a continuous season – fresh lemons and greens in mid-winter!

***I just could not stop myself on the morel puns***

 

 

 

 

 

The nearest thing

I saw an online article from my hometown newspaper, The Bega District News, this morning. “Police hunt for armed man,” was the headline, and the first sentence: “police are searching for a man believed to be armed with a knife and hammer.”

As I followed the story over the course of the day, a tragedy became clear – this man had fatally stabbed a woman and seriously injured another man.

But it’s terrible – my first response reading the headline was to laugh. A HAMMER???

I laugh because I’m so enculturated to Montana and the US now, that anything less than guns blazing seems like de nada.

The hammer detail reminds me of what I wrote about in All we have to do is nothing: kids having strong feelings and irrationally lashing out, with whatever’s closest to hand.

What’s at hand here in Montana is guns. The gun you see in this image I found on a friend’s porch a few weeks ago – the contrast of metal and the pretty cover was captivating, but the reason the gun was there pragmatic: it was on hand for shooting squirrels nesting under their house.

Around the same time I came across that gun, I went out for a short hike in a cedar forest with our family and Haakon’s parents. In the car park, as we gathered sweater’s and hat’s, as it is cool in the cedars, a young couple were also getting ready to hike.

The guy busied himself strapping a handgun to his right thigh while the woman put granola bars in her pockets.

These moments happen so often here that I’m almost used to them, but somewhere in the back of my mind, the Australian in me is still confused: why the gun to hike in a fairy-glen? For an instant, my mind jumps to the worst scenario: maybe he brought her here to kill her. Maybe he will kill us all.

This guy probably thought he was protecting himself, and others, against bears [and lions! wolves!]. The problem here is that HE knows he’s a good guy. HE knows he’s a good shot.

I have none of that information.

All I know is that he feels unsafe for some reason, amongst the giant trees, the ferns, the crystal clear creeks.

Study after study has shown human fatalities in bear attacks are lower when we carry pepper spray, not guns. Pepper spray has a wide range compared to a bullet and can spray up to 30 feet, so a panicked hiker need not be accurate to let the charging bear known he is not worth messing with.

Last night I was in the woods, but high above the bears: lucky enough to be drinking wine in a treehouse with a bunch of lovely women.

One woman, Jen, I had only met once before, and I got to hear a bit of her story. Jen grew up in the nearby town of Libby but had most recently been living in New Mexico with her husband and daughter.

One of the reasons she had moved back here was because there was a shooting at the school where she worked as a middle school math teacher, and she thought it was less likely to happen here.

Is it? I don’t know. Our school community has recently formed a safety committee and held public meetings to discuss whether or not to arm teachers at our school’s.

“Arming teachers is not the solution,” Jen said last night “but having armed security guards is a deterrent.”

I kinda think if you are desperate enough to think that going to a school to shoot kids is a good idea, you are past assessing risk or caring about the threat of your own suffering, or death.

I am in awe of Jen, although I only just met her, for marching her students to safety on the day of the shooting.

“Some of them were crying because they saw the two who died, they saw it happen,” Jen said.

Mostly I admire how much she still wants to teach math, and be in schools.

This morning, Haak and I stood by the stove together in the pale sunlight, waiting for coffee to brew, and while we waited I told him Jen’s story.

“I just read that so far this year there are more people who have died in schools than in the US military,” Haak told me “so skip high school and go straight to the military – it’s safer!”

We lean towards each other, laughing in short, sad bursts, because what else can we do?

Next time Atticus goes to school, in Australia, I’ll worry about him losing his backpack, or breaking an arm falling off the monkey bars. I’ll worry about him being so excited he runs into a pole and gets a concussion.

I’m so relieved I won’t have to worry about him being shot at school anymore.

When someone is having so enraged, so irrational they could just pick up the nearest thing and use the force against anyone nearby, what do we want that thing to be?

A few months ago, I interviewed a handful of locals about the gun’s they own. A neighbor of ours, a very good man, told me that in his collection of 17 guns, he has a shotgun he keeps behind the bedroom door in case of intruder’s.

While I was there, he went to check on it. He came back, holding a gun: “actually, there were two back there,” he chuckled.

Guns are everywhere, man.