On Shamrocks

I don’t think of shamrocks much – other than pulling out a few decorations every March to make the dreary last weeks of winter tolerable, while we wait for the arrival of spring. The shamrocks and leprechauns and the myth of finding our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are fitting things to celebrate while the last drifts of snow melt away. They remind us that there is hope and promise around the next corner, if only we’ll keep searching for it. Maybe that’s a stretch for a holiday that is more or less earmarked for adults as an excuse to go drinking, but still. It’s a nice thought.

As for shamrocks, I certainly never think of eating them, at least until recently. I’ve been reading Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal by Ava Chin and I love it. It’s a memoir of Chin’s experiences learning to forage for food in the city, interspersed with stories about learning to eat, her quest to find a lasting relationship, and the pivotal roles her grandparents played in her life. One of the chapters is on shamrocks, which are actually a tiny little plant called wood sorrel. I’d never made the connection between the two names in my mind until reading a passage in the book where she describes tasting them, and then suddenly I remembered just exactly what they taste like. I used to eat them all the time.

Childhood seems like such a distant memory to me – it’s another era of my life that gets harder to connect with every year. I remember time feeling both slower and bigger than it does now. I have managed to distill all the mixed memories and mixed emotions of my youth into a carefully curated collection of contented memories. There were happy times on my great grandparent’s farm foraging for mushrooms and tending the garden and having family meals, all together, at an actual farm table in an actual farm house. There were days exploring creeks in ravines, and milking the last few cows in a once prolific dairy herd, and watching my great grandpa run massive logs through his one-man sawmill. We played in the pile of sawdust behind it, and searched for mushrooms there. There was a giant honeysuckle bush we used to pluck flowers from, sucking out the sweet flavor from the ends, littering our feet with a pile of spent blossoms. And there are memories of getting lost in many, many books. When I wasn’t on the farm, I was somewhere else, in the land of make believe between smooth cream-colored sheets of paper, dog eared because I’d read them so much. And there was time in the yard, with – as Chin so unintentionally reminded me – a great expanse of shamrocks. It seemed our yard was completely covered with the things; they were far more prolific than grass in the trailer park I grew up in. We used to be outside from dawn to dusk when I was a kid, running barefoot through them, and more often than not I would lay out there in the sunshine, lost in a good book, idly plucking shamrocks and popping them into my mouth. They taste a bit like lemons, and though it sounds absurd to say so, what the color green must taste like. They are lovely.

And that memory – that taste memory – reminded me of others, and the fact that there was a time in my life when I was much more fearless than I am today, wandering around the yard popping things into my mouth just to see what they tasted like. I wasn’t always a picky eater. The wood sorrel and honeysuckle of course, but I also ate wild raspberries that grew in a massive thicket behind the air conditioner, and dandelion greens (which were about as prolific as the wood sorrel – I don’t think I really ever realized that a lawn was just plain old grass until I was much older and had moved away), and I even ate acorns from the oak trees up and down the street, always disappointed that they didn’t have the flavor of walnuts or almonds. I was always sticking something into my mouth, just to see what it tasted like. Perhaps not a super thing to do since there are plenty of poisonous plants in the world, but I like to think that our shared evolutionary knowledge of the natural world guided me, even though that’s maybe a trite thing to say. It never would have occurred to me to taste the lily of the valley growing under the trees in the front, which is a very good thing indeed. And at any rate, it all worked out in the end. I was taken aback realizing all of this reading that passage in Chin’s book – it was akin to being struck by lightning. Found memories from my childhood are more often than not an unwelcome intrusion, but this one was nice. And maybe I am not so far removed from my childhood after all, since for days now whenever I’m walking outside my eyes are firmly trained on the ground, searching for a lucky little patch of shamrocks. And when I find them, I shall eat them in a salad.