Robin’s eldest daughter Linden goes off to college in California, “long before the pond was ready for swimming.” Robin visits her during her first semester, and they walk along the beach one day, gathering agate pebbles, as Robin considers the “fundamental unfairness of parenthood”—that being a good mother means inevitably saying goodbye to one’s children. Returning home, Robin misses her daughter deeply and ruminates on all the things in her life that require constant care and feeding, including her girls. There is a kind of freedom in being released from those responsibilities, but she also believes that there is a reciprocity between parent and child, with each feeding the other in different ways.
This chapter deals directly with the grief that Robin feels when her daughters leave home for college—she is experiencing “empty nest syndrome.” As she recognized with the “water net” algae, the “fundamental unfairness of parenthood” is that it involves caring for and holding that which by its very nature cannot be held. At the same time, Robin tries to comfort herself with ideas of reciprocity, that she and her daughters will continue to nourish each other forever even when they are far apart.
When Larkin gets ready to leave for college, she and Robin go camping by the pond one last time. Looking around, Larkin thanks her mother “for all of this.” The next day Robin drops Larkin off at school, noting the different ways that some of the young people dismiss or say goodbye to their parents. Larkin hugs Robin in front of everyone and warns her to pull off the road if she starts crying.
Larkin clearly associates her mother with her own connection to nature and is grateful for that. Their closeness and emotional intimacy with each other even in public is a clear sign of their strong bond—and shows that Robin has been a “good mother” after all.
Robin tells the reader that she isn’t returning directly home, however, as she can’t handle facing the empty house just yet. Instead, she has made a “midlife crisis” purchase of a new kayak, and she plans on taking it out to assuage her most immediate sense of loss. She drives to the nearby Labrador Pond and slips her kayak into the water, completely alone among the blackbirds and water lilies.
Unsurprisingly, Robin takes solace in nature, where her sense of the animacy and wisdom of all living things ensures that she never feels alone. She has wisely prepared for the grief that she knows she will experience upon Larkin’s departure, and she is able to immediately begin her self-care activity.
Kimmerer comments on the water lilies around her, describing the spongy cells that keep them afloat. The plants get light and air from the surface, but they are attached to a large rhizome (an underground stem) at the bottom of the lake. The yellow flowers surround Robin as she paddles, giving off a slight alcoholic scent. Robin paddles beyond the lilies and out into the deeper water, trying to wear herself out physically so that she has less energy left to feel sad. She rests on the water and closes her eyes, letting herself drift and feeling held and comforted by the water and wind around her.
Robin finds comfort in physical labor (here, rowing) as well as in the company of nature. The botanist in her continues to observe and teach about the scientific processes taking place in the plants around her.
When Robin finally opens her eyes, she finds herself once again surrounded by water lilies. Kimmerer then explains how oxygen passes between the new and old leaves to the rhizome via changes in pressure, as if the plant were inhaling and exhaling between the old “mother” leaves and the new “daughter” leaves. Robin finds herself comforted by this idea, that mothers and daughters are “linked in one long breath.” She paddles back to shore and loads her kayak onto the top of her car. Still thinking about motherhood, she also considers the earth as a mother, one who perhaps also is “fed by the giving.” Robin thanks Mother Earth “for all of this.”
Like the maples with their sap, the water lilies send nutrients up and down through a long vertical system, creating a network of give and take that Kimmerer here compares to the inhalation and exhalation of breath. This is its own kind of reciprocity, and it comforts Robin to think of her relationship with her daughters as being like the breathing in and out between the “mother” and “daughter” leaves of the water lily. Once again, she expands the idea of motherhood to include the earth itself—meaning that Robin is also a child receiving gifts from a generous parent—and she gives thanks to Mother Earth in response.
Returning home in the late evening, Robin sees a pile of presents on her front porch. At first she assumes that there was a going-away party for Larkin and her daughter has missed it, but then Robin realizes that the presents are all for her, meant to comfort her and remind her that she isn’t alone and that her daughters will come back. Such gifts are like the oxygen flowing back and forth in the water lilies, she thinks, meant to be given away and to trust that what we give will one day return.
Robin’s friends and family recognize what she is going through, many of them clearly parents themselves who know what it is to have their children grow up and leave. This scene then returns to the theme of gifts, offering the idea that a mother’s children are a kind of gift that she sends out into the world, trusting in the system of reciprocity that the gift will someday come back.