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Posts Tagged ‘sassafras’

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples¬†(Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips¬†(Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts¬†and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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