One of my favorite things about spring is the smell of lilacs blooming. It’s a short window of time, and like other seasonal milestones, the smell evokes so many memories.

A year ago, I was living in Minneapolis during what I’ve come to call “Lilac Week.”

Last year, “Lilac Week” came in the middle of pandemic lockdown. Schools were closed, many businesses were shuttered, important gatherings were canceled, and we were told not to spend time in close proximity to friends or extended family.

My kids and I spent a lot of our time outdoors, paying closer attention than we would have to the life that was blooming all around us, in spite of social distancing and daily COVID-19 death tolls.

We were not ignoring the fear or the grief of that pandemic spring, but we were finding our own ways of coping, and this included deepening our relationships with the natural world.

One Saturday in May – a year ago, to be exact – I baked my very first bundt cake.

I’m not much of a baker.

Baking takes attention to detail, and I’m an improvisor by nature. I’ve attempted and failed so many baking projects that I’d given up trying! But with all that time at home, I figured I would give it another shot.

The bundt cake was made with lilac sugar.

My kids and I picked the lilacs in our front yard, and on slow walks around the block. We carefully pulled the flowers off of their stem one by one and infused the sugar with lilac goodness.

The recipe also called for spruce tips, another springtime treat that we gathered nearby. We chopped these into small pieces and made a sweet glaze that smelled and tasted like our camping trips up north.

Without question, it was the best cake I’d ever baked, and it might have been the best cake I ever will bake!

This year, we’re living in a different place. We are close to the Mississippi River, but don’t have any lilac trees nearby.

The other day, we took a walk along the Mississippi. Though I missed the lilacs, I did notice lots of other spring flowers, as well as fiddlehead ferns unfurling from their little mounds, ramps (wild leeks) in abundance, and two morel mushrooms.

Gathering spring smells and tasting what we can, is one of the best ways I know to feel connected to the place where we live. With time, I know these sights, smells, and tastes will be part of good memories for me and for my children too.  

What are some of your favorite spring sights, smells and tastes?

I will be bringing some of these plants to the Aitkin Farmer’s Market on upcoming weekends to offer samples of white pine tea, lilac sugar, pickled ramps and more—and would love to hear any tips or recipes for savoring seasonal goodies from our local landscape!

Shanai Matteson is a writer, artist, cultural organizer, and mom who lives in rural Palisade. You can reach her at shanaihmat

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