June 26, 2012

The Crone of Cayuga Lake: Continuing Bonds with a Wild Teacher

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In September 1968, Vic and I rented a barely winterized cottage on Cayuga Lake. The next spring, we splurged on a canoe. As we explored the lake, Vic paddled and steered from the stern, while I practiced beginner’s skills from the bow.

One warm day, we paddled nearly a mile up shore. Looking north, we saw a white-haired woman standing on a retaining wall in front of a cottage that stood close to the water’s edge. As she waved her pale billowy apron, her frizzy curls danced in the wind.

“Come on over here,” she hollered with raucous caw. It was an order. Vic who loved an adventure steered toward shore and her dock.

“Hey, I’ve been watching you two paddling up and down the shore for weeks, wondering when you’d come close enough to hear me calling,” she said as we floated next to her decaying dock. “Come on up. My name’s Libby. Glad you’re here.” She tossed us a rope to tie the canoe and extended a hand to haul me to the dock.

“Come with me,” she demanded after asking our names. We followed her up uneven stone steps beside her cabin to a leveled area one tier uphill from the house.

“This is my garden,” she said, lifting her chest and sweeping her arm as though showing us a grand vista. Down the lake at our place, I had planted spindly tomato plants in shaded rocky soil, hoping for the best. Libby’s garden was rich with black loose loam held in place with shale walls. Her red Swiss chard was huge.

lamb's quarters from my garden
lamb's quarters from my garden

“It wintered over,” she said. “Over there next to the compost pile, that’s the lamb’s quarters. It volunteers.” I eyed the rampant green plants cautiously. “I compost with chicken shit,” Libby continued without a breath. “The coop is up the hill. Could you use some eggs?”

“Did you ever eat lamb’s quarters?” she yelled as she climbed over the pile of orange rinds, green plant skins, and chicken manure.

“No, never have,” I said, leaning closer for a look.

“It’s delicious, even raw,” Libby said, breaking off a pink tinged tip and handing it to me. “Here, try it.”

Forty-three years later, I harvest tips from the volunteer lamb’s quarters in my vegetable garden. I stir fry them with olive oil and garlic and shout out thanks to wild Libby Leonard before devouring them for lunch. Thank you, Libby, for teaching me how to harvest volunteers and prune tomato plants. Thank you for sharing your favorite black cap berry patches on the hill above Cayuga Lake and teaching me the art of making jam. Thank you, Libby, for handing down your crone wisdom about the healing power and delicious possibilities of plants.


Do you ever forage for food in the wild? Do you let plants self-seed in your garden so that you’ll have volunteers the next season? How did you learn to grow and prepare vegetables? Follow this link for easy and delicious vegetable recipes. Try greens and beans with any greens you forage in the field or in the produce aisle.


  1. August 15, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Keala Noel


    Aloha, I saw your post about your blog on linkedin grief and loss, so I thought I’d check you out and find you are an herbalist too!!
    In Hawaii so we don’t have things like lambs quarters but I did harvest wild noni today on my land.
    I have a new project I am very excited about, please check out our web at http://www.findingangels.com
    We have only been together less than two weeks and just have finished our fourth case and all with great results.
    We have been blessed with talents and are reaching out to those in pain from loss.
    I have been a holistic facilitator for almost 20 years and have just now answered by life’s true dream, helping people like this … and it gives me such joy to hear the feedback, knowing one person is suffering a little less today because of it.
    I have two books that are compeling to people with grief or people who are in limbo hell because someone is missing.
    I would be very honored if you let me gift PDF copies to you. Just email me at kealanoel@yahoo.com and I can attach them to the email and they read just like kindle.
    Any way you remind me of a very dear friend who lives almost totally off the land around her and she is just radiant because of living the life of the crone, only not alone.
    Good to meet you. Aloha and blessings Keala

    1. August 16, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Dear Keala, I looked at your website and wish you and those you serve well. As you’ve discovered, I’m not an herbalist. This time of year, here in upstate New York, I grow all my own vegetables, but otherwise I’m grateful for the healthy food available in grocery stores. May your work continue to bless others. I’ll remember you’re there if I ever get to Hawaii again. I was there more than twenty years ago and fell in love with the place. Best to you.

  2. June 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm



    Thanks, Elaine. We too have enthusiastically cooked lamb’s quarters for years. What do you do with cattails?

    1. June 28, 2012 at 8:16 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I haven’t eaten cattails blossoms for a long time. They’re remotely like corn. My original lessons came from Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, but now we can go to Youtube. Here’s a video on cattail blossom harvesting and cooking. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mu0iPCq3EJQ I used olive oil on mine instead of butter. Thanks to Joe and Zach Survival (http://www.youtube.com/user/JoeandZachSurvival).

  3. June 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Jill Swenson


    Oh, Elaine. What a wonderful gift your writing is to those of whose life stories parallel your own path to widowhood. I loved foraging the land when Sam and I farmed On Warren Pond Farm. Fiddlehead ferns, cattails, wild rosehips, watercress and mustard greens “volunteer” to adorn my plate. In the pig pen the best “volunteer” tomatoes grew and I even made violet jelly. Nettle and wild sasparilla, St. John’s Wort in its yellow blossoms, comfrey and wild black raspberries. Foraging. The land owns our souls when we discover its sweet pleasures. I’ve grown lamb’s ear and have a nice patch right close to my cottage and must try your recipe.

    1. June 27, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Jill. Make sure you’re eating lamb’s quarters, not lamb’s ears which is a different rather wooly plant. Some people call lamb’s quarters pigweed. Violet jelly sounds so delicate. I see the pale translucent color. I wonder why I don’t harvest cattails anymore? Have to try that again. Happy hunting.

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