Dispatch #7: Transplanted
Driving down a highway in Ohio, a mother spots a roadside plant that she recognizes from her homeland in China. Thrilled, she insists her family stop and collect it by the bagful. Her young daughter is miserable. Wet feet. Squishy mud. Icky snails. And worst of all, the risk of being seen by her classmates, digging in a ditch for dinner.
Andrea Wang's exquisite picture book, Watercress, captures the discomfort of being the child of immigrant parents, resisting the old ways, at least until their deeper meanings are revealed. The book also highlights an activity that goes on every day in rural, suburban, and even urban locations: collecting wild plants for food.
It was a colleague of mine working in Baltimore who first brought this practice to my attention. As a city parks employee, and an avid collector himself, he began to notice just how many people were out foraging in urban green spaces. There was the man who shook mulberries out of sidewalk trees as neighborhood kids stood below, catching them in an upside-down umbrella, giggling with delight. There were families regularly picking wild greens known as pokeweed for use in traditional southern Black dishes. And, too, there were large numbers of recent immigrants, like the mother in Andrea Wang's story, delighting in the presence of beloved plants originating from their home countries. A pair of Italian brothers foraging for oyster mushrooms in the city woodlands. Two elderly Korean women collecting the fruits of
ginkgo trees. Families harvesting Chinese chestnuts, year after year. At the time, we marveled at this wonderful correspondence between new resident and botanical transplant.
Oh, hello, old friend! one imagines the person saying.
Finally, someone who appreciates me! one can almost hear the plant responding.
As Andrea Wang's story makes clear, a wild food from home can be a source of comfort, nourishment, and cultural continuity. It can also stir up potent memories. In Watercress, the young narrator isn't at all sure about eating this unfamiliar roadside plant. But her complaints prompt her mother to share family stories that have gone untold and unappreciated for far too long. It's a defining moment in their relationship, one that links past and present, and puts in perspective the family's modest Ohio life. In the end, one senses that the narrator will come to celebrate eating watercress and even going outside to gather it⎼mud, snails, and all.