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Archive for the ‘Foraging’ Category

Juice runs down my fingers as I take a tentative bite of cherry. “Oh my god,” I say, nearly spitting it back out. It is extremely sour, to the point of being bitter. I pick another, this time being sure to select one without any red at the stem. It is slightly sweeter, but still tart. I quickly pick a handful and carry them with us down the trail, popping them in my mouth and eating around the stone at the center which almost fills the entire fruit.

We are walking through the trails of Kiptopeke State Park, a mixed coastal forest filled to bursting with wild edible plants. The prolific black cherry trees are just the beginning, and I keep a ready handful as we walk, leaving the tips of my fingers stained bright red. Once I get used to the taste they are quite good, despite there not being much fruit per berry. I keep imagining jam recipes as we go- maybe combining them with the very last of the blackberries we find later on the trail, to counteract the bitterness of the cherry with the sometimes overwhelming sweetness of blackberries.

Further along the trail there are things that won’t be ready until late fall- frost grapes, which need the first frost to fully ripen them to sweetness. Autumn olives, which are actually a nasty invasive, roses (for the hips), hickories, the nuts from the year before cracking under our feet, and even a few stray fig trees which don’t typically grow wild but which sometimes escape cultivation and go crazy. If we go back in the fall we’ll have a feast on our hands.

It’s easy to see how native populations could thrive here in these successional areas. In the mature forest, a wide variety of nuts, in the mid growth and edge areas, cherries galore, and berry bushes of all kinds, and grape vines, and deer and birds, and within the fields tender greens and herbs. Along the coast there are of course fish and crabs and shellfish. It is wonderful to survey the bounty, when you stop to look at it, and it’s hard to believe people ever think nature doesn’t provide. This is even less than there would have been, before European contact- early settlers described the land as simply overflowing with things to eat. These plants grow to attract the attention of animals- they rely on animals, including people, to eat the fruit and spread around the seeds in their manure, effectively planting each seed with its own dose of fertilizer.

My wild edible plant guidebook gives me all kinds of interesting tidbits- that there are 35 species of wild roses, all of which have edible fruit, that there are 50 species of native grapes, that you can make hickory pie (hickory is closely related to pecan), that Native Americans used hickory oil to make butter- apparently wild cherries are a “trail thirst quencher,” which is about right. It feels so strange, and yet so instinctively right to simply reach up as you walk and pull down a fist full of berries.

Walking a trail with someone who knows most of the plants (the handsome fella) and a guidebook is like being a kid on a scavenger hunt except with a much better reward. Each turn in the trail reveals something new to try, or something else to identify- for example, the several species of dogsbane we identify in one place, which is toxic when alive but can be collected after it’s dried in the field to use for fiber. There is a thrill to successfully identifying something- a thrill, a sense of almost doing something naughty, standing there in a field with cherry juice staining your lips. It’s even more satisfactory to mark the position of certain trees in your head, knowing you can come back in a few months and find something good to eat. It’s like being let in on a secret. It’s the ultimate realization that food does not come from the grocery store. It’s the secret that used to be so widely known it was taken for granted. Nature will provide if you just know where to look.

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Last week on the farm it was hot. Really, really, hot. Don’t know if you heard, but it was 105 in MD. And it felt like it. So we did a lot of pausing between tasks to sit and try to cool off a little. During one of these pauses I started listening. I’ve been thinking, since I wrote the posts on trees, that I don’t do much listening to anything else. The rest of the plant kingdom talks too, as do all the insects, and the birds, and everything else living. As I sat I tried to sort out sounds and realized there are, at times, hundreds of things to hear. This makes listening rather a task.

It fascinates me how, when the handsome fella and I go somewhere (even when we’re driving in the car with the windows down) he can hear all the different birds, and sort out their various songs and calls by species and then by individual and usually identify what the individual is saying, ie is it a mating call or a warning call or a hey I’m over here call. It’s a little crazy and sometimes I just wonder if he’s making it up because I certainly can’t tell the difference between bird calls, unless there are only one or maybe two distinct ones that I have to sort out. I tried to do it, sitting there on a rock on the farm, and kept getting distracted by other sounds- the air conditioning in the main house, the truck in the distance, the breeze turning over the leaves in the orchard, the chickens singing because one of them laid an egg. It was really difficult.

I read something recently about observation, and how so much of our ability to survive used to be dependent on our ability to observe the world around us and put a story to it: this animal walked here this long ago and that plant grew here and produced fruit at this time so I can come back again and collect it next year. This is why we have such capacious memories. But these days there are so many distractions- so many competing sounds and images- that it’s almost impossible to sort out the one from the other, much less to get really good at listening to the language of bird calls.

That’s the other piece of the puzzle, I think. Language. We speak the language of the civilized, the domesticated humans. Sitting here now typing I can hear the hum of my laptop, and the buzz of the fan, and the traffic on the highway, and a mix of bird sounds outside the open window. Plus I have music on. The likelihood that I’m going to hear much of anything specific is slim. And even if I do sort out the bird sounds from the rest, I don’t know the language. It’s like when I go to Germany and am surrounded by native speakers. I have trouble separating the words because they are all talking at once and are all talking so fast- to be able to understand it has to be one person, talking directly to me, and I usually have to have some vague idea of what they’re talking about first before I can get the gist of what they’re saying.

Maybe this is why I can speak to trees, a little. I practiced a lot when I was a kid. And why it’s so hard to hear anything else. It becomes much harder to learn languages as we get older. I’d like to learn to speak the language of vegetables, which so far are completely inscrutable to me, since I plan to be growing quite a few of them in the near future (and am spending an awful lot of time with them now). Usually about all I can get is the need for water, and that one I wouldn’t need to even speak to understand, given that we haven’t had rain in almost three weeks. (Do you hear me, rain? Come on!)

The amazing thing is when you start to learn the vocabulary. Just as with learning German or French, as I pick up words I start to notice things more. I can pick out a grasshopper sparrow if I hear one in the field. Ospreys are easy. And tomatoes, I suspect, are going to be one of the chattier vegetables (ok, fruits, whatever). The same goes for the visual. As soon as I have a name for something, I see it more often. It completely astonished me to discover how many birds there are in this area. If you had asked me before, I could have ticked off maybe ten or twenty- robins, cardinals, blue jays, crows, that sort of thing. Maybe a few more because my mom is into this stuff. Now I’m driving down the lane to the farm and seeing an indigo bunting in the same place every morning, and sometimes a scarlet tanager but I think he moved on because it’s been a few weeks now. I literally would not have even seen these birds at this time last year. They were there. But somehow my eyes slid right over them.

The same goes for plants. One of the farm interns has been pointing out different sorts of weeds to me, and usually every time I come across something distinctive, I ask someone what it is. I know at least ten more plants now, which, considering I’m only farming once a week, I think is something of an accomplishment. It’s even more exciting when I discover I can eat them. I’ve been half assing my way through herbal and wild plant studies since I was maybe about 10, and have read numerous (countless) books on the subject. But I had rarely gone out into a field and looked around and said, oh look, there’s some cress, I can eat that. Like lamb’s quarters. I had heard about them, knew you could eat them, but didn’t have the faintest what they looked like (even after looking at pictures in books) until one was pointed out to me. Now I see them all the time. And usually eat them. It’s a good thing they don’t spray at the farm, since half the time we are standing in the field eating weeds to find out what they taste like.

Given that I will likely be sitting in the woods somewhere at the time this is posting, I’m hoping this trip will be like immersion studies in Europe- when I come back I hope to have a much bigger vocabulary.

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Here is an excerpt from a fabulous food post from my sister-at-heart, clickclack gorilla:

In England, dumpster diving is called skipping. It’s a rather indirect way to talk about trash picking, but it feels appropriate in its way. Picture two small children holding hands and skipping through the park. Picture the gleeful expressions on their faces. This is how I look when, wrapped up in multiple jackets and scarves, I rush from a beat-up red van to the house kitchen laden with not-frozen-anymore soft pretzel dough. I was euphoric. Skipping was in order.

I haven’t been dumpster diving in a car in years. Wait, I take that back. I’ve been dumpster diving in a car once in the last five years. My very first food dive was in an old Volvo station wagon, and we drove home with garbage bags full of bread and bagels. But since moving to Germany, I’ve had to limit myself to backpack-sized hauls. It never really mattered—I only had one or two people to feed back then. But now that I live with so many dumpster-food-friendly people, a backpack, even my human-sized army surplus duffel backpack, isn’t always big enough to haul home what we could put away in a week.

Read the rest (plus so much more) at :click clack gorilla.

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