On Blackberry Hill – The Wild Pantry
by Tammy Barron ~
From risking starvation and exposure alone, to battling the elements naked and afraid, turn on the TV and you’ll find dozens of programs that play out the drama of survival. What began as Survivor’s reality TV experiment has now evolved into an international phenomenon; one where every conceivable
situation of primitive survival is produced and marketed for the masses. Why are we so fascinated with the concept of man vs. wild? It would seem these programs speak to the ancient part of ourselves that crave a connection to the natural world. They vicariously give us adventure as we sit comfortably
It wasn’t that long ago that living off the land was a typical way of life. People hunted, farmed, and foraged the landscape to feed their families. They were connected to the world through place and time and seasons. Life was vulnerable and it was meaningful. For many, the call to the wild is louder than their DVR recordings. They don their boots and a nap sack and head into their own wilderness to rekindle the old ways and spark a new trend, foraging. Foraging is more than simply finding edible weeds. It’s about gathering the wild, ephemeral, virtue of the untamed; collecting the wild tastes and qualities that nature so preciously offers. The flavors gathered from the wild are often startling and complex, sweet and tart simultaneously, unlike the modified varieties found in the grocery store,
which are often pretty to look at but taste rather bland.
My habits of foraging began a few years ago, when my husband and I bought our farm. We were ecstatic to note the wild muscadine vines and blackberries growing with abandon on our new plat. With tremendous enthusiasm, I gathered enough wild berries to make my favorite sweet cream dessert. With less enthusiasm, I dealt with the repercussions of picking berries in shorts. Chiggers are an adversary worthy of prime time.
When I think about it however, foraging has an earlier hold on me. My lazy childhood summers were spent hunting fairies and building outdoor hideaways in the forgotten orchard behind Grandma’s house. Wild asparagus, sweet onions, spearmint, rogue raspberries, and currants adorned the paths between the fruit trees and scrub oak. I played endlessly and snacked on apricots and apples as I staked claim to the highest boughs under the protective shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. Memories of listening to the birds’ melodic hopes and the whispers of grasshoppers are tinged with flavors of sweet onions and sour berries. The land fed my imagination as well as my appetite. Hours passed unnoticed until twilight called, and my name would ring through the tangible shadows, until tomorrow. My face and hands were preserved by layers of dirt, and my belly was full with wild pickings from the back yard.
Of course, little compares to tasting something you have plucked from the earth and prepared into
a masterful meal, but foraging has other benefits beyond nature walks and haute cuisine. The network of people is so interesting. There are websites, Facebook pages, garden clubs, and foodie events all dedicated to this esoteric craft. I recently reached out to Mark Warren, director of Medicine Bow, a primitive school of earth-lore, and was immediately drawn to his respect of the forest and its aesthetic appeal. As a naturalist and primitive survival instructor, he had the most amazing insights on the healthy impacts of time spent in the wilderness. He also talked to me about some important guidelines to follow when first learning the craft.
5 BASICS TO FORAGING
1. Do Botanical Research.
Proper identification and correct food preparation are the primary forager concerns. Take a class, find a mentor, and have a field guide handy so you can positively identify what you intend to gather. For example, wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) looks very similar to poison hemlock.
2. Know Where to Collect Wild Foods.
Be conscientious of where you gather foods from the wild. Fresh watercress is really tempting but trace the source of your stream. If it drains past a cow pasture or is down-hill from a landfill, “yuck!” Avoid plants next to highways and on the margins of large farms that likely use pesticides. Also, note it is illegal to poach on privately owned land and National Forests.
3. Know the Best Time to Gather.
Edibles. Practiced foragers keep a calendar and know the season for different edible varieties. For many
plants the harvest window is brief and contingent on the weather.
4. Leave Plenty of Healthy Plants.
Foraging in the wild requires a level of responsibility to our habitat; just because it’s free for the taking
doesn’t mean that it is sustainable. When gathering from nature, it is important that you keep in mind we share these resources with animals. Follow the forager’s tenet of 20%. Taking anything more than one for every five plants you find is considered unethical.
5. Learn How to Sort and Prepare Wild Foods Safely.
Before you dine on foraged foods make sure you know which part is edible and which part is not. For instance, Pokeweed is very nutritious and one of the first greens to pop-up in the spring, but it is also highly toxic. It must only be harvested when it is young and then it must be cooked in several changes of water.
Foraging walks create connections between wild places and the untamed within you. In the words of Thoreau, they teach you to, “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” Nature has a way of revealing its beautiful secrets in its own time; yet unwavering it will provide many discoveries along the way. May you discover yourself in Mother Earth’s pantry.