Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cattail Rhizome



Samuel Thayer said it could be done, so we went out and tried it. And boy was this fun! The starchy core of the cattail rhizome can be processed to retrieve a flour. The gathering required a mucky walk into the cattail marsh. I tread carefully. Beneath a soggy lattice of cattail leaves and fallen branches was a sucking mud that I wondered if I could eject myself from if I got stuck.

The process took a bit of finesse. I started by finding an old stalk and following it by hand through the cold, opaque waters and into the sulpherous muck. Feeling around, I would eventually grasp onto something that felt more like a rope than the surrounding sticks. Then I'd reach beneath with my knife, careful to cut the rhizome and not my fingers. Then I gently pulled on the cut end. Somewhere, several feet away, the few tentative early leaves of an early cattail stalk would dunk below the surface like the tail of a duck. A few gentle tugs and it would emerge in my hand at the end of a foot or two of alien-looking tentacle.

When done, I was mucky, smelly, and happy.

The next day we were leaving for Boston, and I was unprepared for the time that processing the bagful of uneartly things would take. I mangled the first few roots, losing most of the starch as I fumbled with the technique of pushing off the spongy rind with my thumb. It was one o'clock in the morning when I finished with the sticky pile and set it to dry on a baking sheet. The house was quiet and I felt at peace. It was the end of a week of break from school. The work-a-day world felt far away. I had spend every hour of the last week with my growing daughter and wife. I had gathered wild plants every day, taken long woodsy forays finding fiddleheads, wild leeks, and hawthornes. I was tired, but my whole body felt light anyway. I imagined what a life like this would be like.

I still can't see how to feed myself exclusively off the wild. But these starchy roots made me feel a little closer. Here was something that promised real caloric value. I've eaten so many tasty greens. But, they've been just that--greens. Not something that could keep a family alive for months on end. If there were a giant swamp to camp by like some of the ones over by Keene, maybe one could survive off of a stew thickened the starch here. I feel like I am learning myself closer to my own emancipation from civilization, one plant at a time.

How do cattails taste? They taste like freedom.

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