Lately, when staring quizzically at my biochemistry text, I imagine I feel similar to plants with whom I’m unacquainted, staring at forest’s edge. Forms in every shade of green possible, all blending into each other. How do you tell them apart? Where do I even start?
When I’m new at something I feel overwhelmed, totally unrelatable, I know. The codes and patterns all seem incoherent and jumbled, it’s hard to make sense when I don’t know the symbols. I feel lost and irritated and foggy. Sunday I was having an immersive experience in being a biochemistry greenhorn and felt like I wanted to crawl out of my skin.
I’ve grown up with a father who has great affection for organic chemistry. He loves to draw out reactions and stick renderings of molecules. One thanksgiving he was shocked that no one else knew what aldehydes were while in the midst of theorizing on which additive would assist a honeycomb cake in forming hexagonal air pockets. He loves this microscopic universe of amino acids, hydroxyls, esters, and fatty acids, and seems to really appreciate what they all bring to the table.
I want to get there, but I’m not there yet. Right now I just feel like I’m reading Russian, so last Sunday, when I was nearing meltdown, corrosive acids of stress eating my brain, Greg and I went for a run. We had a side mission of harvesting some nettles I’d found a week ago. Once outside I suddenly felt relief. The flowers are just gushing their petal love all over the sidewalks and luring me in for whiffs. The knotweed is already up to my chest in some places, and I revel in the un-tame bounding from every median. Entanglements of street smart mugwort, garlic mustard, carpets of violet, and thick stands of ornery nettles.
This crowd feels like home, and I pepper Greg with new sighting outbursts, “oh look, there’s an autumn olive!” and “oh, there’s a June berry!” He now teases me with “is it packed with vitamin C?” I’m feeling more at home in the strange land of Schenectady and regain a sense of competence while recognizing the patterns of the plants with ease like faces of old friends.
When I was a kid in Minnesota, as a family we made the best of being far from the Atlantic ocean and blood relatives. We bonded with each other and the backyard with a thick layer of black topsoil, unruly garden, and small, deep lake. By some tremendous luck, my little sister befriended a girl named Gracie whose family we became very close with. To this day, John Ratzloff, her dad, is a dear friend of my father. We had dinner with them almost every week while living in Minnesota. Fortunately for all of us, John is a morel mushroom hunter and his family hosted an annual morel bacchanal with foods inspired by this singular fungus. Morel stroganoff was almost always on the weekly menu when we were together. At the time, I had no idea how special this was.
A sixth grade art teacher prompted my class to make a clay model of our favorite meal. Mine was this morel stroganoff, with bruschetta, and roasted potatoes, the same starchy feast we shared with the Ratzloffs nearly every week. They had taken us in, fed us delicacies of the land, and helped us feel most at home as possible. Minnesota was odd to us, people talked and behaved differently. I’m sure as a 4th grader entering a new school I was overwhelmed. Now I look back with affection as we found our way to land connection and chosen family in a place so unfamiliar.
While on my study break jaunt last weekend I found my first morels ever. They were trickled conspicuously in a hundred foot row, right along the bike path in Schenectady. I was in a state of euphoria for the rest of the evening. I gave some to Greg’s parents and saved the rest to share with mine for later. On a day when I was feeling so lost, there were the morels, reminding me not to worry, that lasting friends can be made in foreign places. I just need to keep showing up at the study table, I learn the new customs of alcohols and ketone bodies and the urea cycle, and before I know it, they’ll tug my heart with that same familiar joy.
From John's book, Roon: A Tribute to Morel Mushrooms, pictured above. John Ratzloff is a photographer living in Northern Minnesota. Here's a link to some of his photographs.
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.