The Generous Naturalist, the Generous Reader

Fledgling swallows Steve_Flickr.jpg

Fledgling Swallows by Steve Herring on FlickrSteve Herring on Flickr

I’ve been taking a Master Naturalist class with the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center. The formal classes have finished, and when I finish the required community work and research paper, I will be considered an apprentice Master Naturalist. If I can manage it I’ll take part 2 next summer, and if I complete that I will be full-fledged.

That term “fledged” recalls the young birds (fledglings) that leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves, with the goal of flying off and living on their own. As an apprentice there is SO much to know and of course I will never know it all. But I have learned, like the famed Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to depend on the kindness of (now former) strangers to help me along my way.

Cattails by Elliot Margolies flickr

Who knew cattails were so tasty? Photo courtesy of Elliot Margolies on Flickr

Each teacher has gone out of his or her way to create a welcoming atmosphere, and to help in practical ways. Ed made several concoctions for snack break from his foraging finds—there was knotweed pie (great use of an invasive) and cattail soup (an asparagus-ish tasting delight). He was quick to point out any interesting new finds along the trail, as were all of our teachers.

Brad pulled me up from the ground when I fell on a recent hike, and pointed out chestnut oaks and the skin of a newly molted rat snake after I dusted off my jeans and dignity and panted my way up rocky inclines. That shiny, freshly molted creature (so black it was blue!) stole the show away from our guest expert geologist for a few minutes, while we followed it to its rendezvous with other snakes in a nearby crevice.

Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain .JPG

Photogenic, resplendent Eastern rat snake on Ragged Mountain

Jasper kept our whole group up to date on what was going on, and patiently advised me on the hours I needed to log. Juan made the long drive from his distant home to Deep River to give me a tutorial about lichens at Fountain Hill Cemetery. We got on our hands and knees with hand lenses, and he pointed out the Lilliputian wonders wrought in these algae/fungus (and sometimes cyanobacteria) combinations. Later I paged through the trove of books and pamphlets he had brought along to lend me. He didn’t hold it against me when I decided lichens were too difficult, given the limited time I have to research and write my paper.

LICHENS TOMBSTONE

Many lichens LOVE tombstones! I was focusing on brownstone obelisks

Stretching my fledgling wings a bit more, I contacted Lynn, a Master Naturalist program graduate who is busy using her knowledge (and retired teacher skills), leading talks and hikes. She took the time to meet with me and to let me tag along on her hikes, teaching as she went and giving me the opportunity to bring forth my burgeoning knowledge. I now use the crinkly, paper-like feel of the leaves to help me identify the American beech, and she helped me realize that witch hazel may very well be named after the characteristic witch-hat shaped galls on its leaves that house a particular kind of aphid.

witch hazel leaf gall Danielle Flickr.jpg

Witch hazel leaf with gall courtesy of Danielle Brigada on Flickr

What is it about naturalists that makes them so remarkably generous, eager to share time, discoveries, and information? I am sure I bring my own biases to the theory, because Mary Oliver’s iconic line, “My work is loving the world” guides all of my time in nature. But could it be that all of these naturalist hearts have expanded because of their love for the world and its creatures, because of the generosity they themselves have received from nature (and other lovers of it)?

Readers are a whole other set of generous folks. An attendee at my nature writing exploration yesterday took the time to write me a complimentary note and share her new piece with me. She later wrote an Amazon review, too! Another recommended haikus written by Richard Wright. Librarian Laurie led me to Brainerd Library’s enchanting butterfly garden and did some research that informed me we were seeing milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (not monarch caterpillars–they look nothing alike!) on the milkweed plants. The list goes on and on. Same theory here for me. Reading, when done faithfully and thoughtfully, has the potential to expand not only the mind, but the heart.

milkweed tussock moth caterpillars (Brainerd)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars

And being with these people, naturalists and readers alike (even better if they are BOTH!) has expanded my own heart. It was serendipitous timing that I ran across a 2005 birthday card from Mom tucked into one of my nature books, even more precious now as she can no longer share quotes like she used to. What she shared with me was prescient, because it preceded my full-throttle return to time in nature and time in books about it. Here is what she wrote (and I found the quote on the Internet so have included the full attribution):

A certain philosopher asked St Anthony: Father, how can you be happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied. My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God,
the book is before me.

Anon.Verba Seniorum (Adhortationes sanctorum patrum) ciii (4th – 8th cens. CE)(Greek original lost; Pelagius I and John III, Latin transl.; T. Merton Engl. transl.) in: The Wisdom of the Desert p. 139.

Of course, I am NOT deprived of the consolation of books, and because I can, I want to embrace both–finding meaning in the books and in the spectacular green world. How delicious to know that this possibility is before me!

 

 

 

Excuse Me While I Taste the Sky: A Nibble on Foraging

Okay, this whole foraging venture is new to me, so nothing you read here should be construed as advice to eat particular plants. And there is still a part of me that fears eating a poisonous imposter and dying a slow and awful death owing to my lack of attention to detail, groaning with deep regret as I lie in the woods, fading into unconsciousness.

That being said, I am cautiously inspired by two talks Gavin and I had the good fortune to hear about foraging for edible plants, both given by Karen Monger, author of Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging  and one of The 3 Foragers.

Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild PlantsAt both talks, Karen’s husband served cold linden tea, and I learned that linden trees are often found in planted landscapes and parking lot medians/perimeters (versus more randomly, on walks through the woods). I will be looking for the yellowish-white flowers next spring, hoping to get my hands sticky with the harvest. (Of course, good foraging etiquette dictates that you ask before harvesting, but I am assuming someone will oblige). I imagine locally harvested linden tea in the winter would be a sweet reminder of greener times to come!

I have started to see daylilies everywhere, now that they are on my foraging radar. Shoots can be eaten in spring, and the flowers can be stuffed, similar to a squash blossom. (See this recipe from famous “Wild Man” Steve Brill). I am especially looking forward to eating the cooked, unopened buds, which reportedly taste sort of like green beans, but also slightly oniony. And the list of wild plant-eating possibilities goes on and on from there. (By the way, mushrooms are advised against for newbies. Consumption can be quite risky if you don’t know what you are doing, and that goes for plants as well as mushrooms! The Connecticut Valley Mycological Society  is a great resource for the long, careful process of learning more about fungi.)

So far, I’ve nibbled on lemony-sour sorrel and grapey-tasting (no surprise there) grape tendrils on my own. I already know, without needing to have my hand held, that the wild berries are coming in soon (only now I will call most of them wine berries instead of wild raspberries). I even have a pie recipe at the ready.

wine berries beginning

Beginnings of bristly blooms in the yard promise tasty desserts later

What I am most excited about, though, is the jewelweed. The Indian Native Plant & Wildflower Society says that “the seeds are both edible and quite tasty. Unfortunately, they are very small. It is said they taste like Walnuts (Juglans sp.).” But what especially intrigues me is that they are a beautiful light blue on the inside, after the darker seed coat is removed. Long-time Saratoga Springs-based nature blogger Jacqueline Donnelly gave me permission to repost this image:

jewelweedblue

The inner jewelweed seed, as depicted on the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog

Jewelweed is so named because of the sparkly way the water beads up on it, I am told. But I am much more taken with this Tiffany blue, hidden gem that can be taken in and savored on the tongue—a small bite of sky captured within a “weed.”

(By the way, the term weed is pretty subjective! See The Heroic Milkweed for Emerson’s quote on same, and more info on the infinity of uses for plants!  I haven’t yet delved into milkweed eating, although I am told it can be done!).

Rich in Raspberries

2014-07-31 07.10.08

I’ve got to give my son Gavin credit for this blog’s title, and top billing in this week’s photo, too. He mused aloud that we were “rich in raspberries” as we industriously filled two sandwich bags with our picks from a tangle of roadside bushes. They were a bit of breakfast, and later, at the close of the day, dessert with whipped cream.

We had to consult a friend to be sure the berries we saw springing up everywhere were safe. Our Backyard Foraging book neglected this particular species, and I was seriously afraid that there might be imposters that looked and smelled like wild raspberries but were actually an artfully disguised malevolent toxin that would leave us gasping for breath. But once we got the all clear, the worst thing that happened was a little patch of poison ivy on Gavin’s arm, a small price for the juicy pleasure of the experience.

On the way up the hill to our best picking spot, we saw a wealth of small birds and a duet of deer, and realized that they, also, were probably relishing the seemingly unceasing red harvest. Something about eating right from the bush, and about sharing the joy with a bevy of creatures, made the berries taste that much sweeter.

Amidst the satisfying pick, I also felt sad when thinking about how removed from the land most of us have become. On the other hand, there remains a stalwart cadre of faithful kitchen gardeners, and foraging seems to have picked up in many sectors, to me a powerful sign of the collective desire to reconnect with the good earth. Recently, I took great pleasure in the book Closer to the Ground, particularly relishing its tales of a family’s catches from the Pacific Northwest waters and coastline.  I thought back to a piece I wrote years earlier surrounding an older book by Nelson Coon, called Using Wayside Plants. Coon was inspired by William Miller, a hobo who dug himself snug places to sleep below the snow, tapped sugar maples with hollowed elderberry twigs, and chewed black birch bark to stave hunger. The read was rich with recipes for sorrel and nettle soups, ink cap mushrooms dug from the roots of trees, clover bloom vinegar, elderberry waffles, and the piece de la resistance —Irish Moss Blanc Mange.

I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting this dish, but I see that Coon’s Irish Moss dessert wasn’t as rare and exotic as I imagined—Fannie Farmer included it in her famed early 20th century cookbook  and a much more recent Block Island cookbook  also put it on the menu. I love the Haiku-like simplicity of how the recipe starts:

Gather fresh moss on the beach.
Rinse well in cold water and
Spread in the sun to dry.

Whether I’ll ever gather sufficient moss and stick-to-itiveness to make such a dish happen, I can’t say. But it does make me appreciate the abundance of both land and sea, and long for the harvest that happens so much less often these days at the individual level, but is there for the taking. The satisfaction it yields is as filling as the food itself.

(A shout out here to my nephew Will, too, who has inspired me with his artful foraging! I still want a mushroom lesson).