Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blueberries and Basswood: Two Good Reasons Why We Are Not Experts

"It is fascinating to observe how, after only a year or two of avid interest in a topic, some people begin to feel like experts. Whether it is basketry, yoga, or tracking, some people feel the need to be
teaching something almost as soon as they begin learning it."

--Samuel Thayer in Nature's Garden. Birchwood, WI.: Forager's Harvest Press, 2010.

We are not experts. We could go on indefinitely with example to this effect (see our clover disaster post . . . oh, and did we ever tell you the story of the horrible wild lettuce that we ate which we found out later was just not the right species of lettuce) but here allow us to focus on just two.

Reason #1: After our blueberry excursion at our favorite swimming spot. We followed it up with another blueberry picking evening on a warm, dry granite mountaintop. The previous year we had collected a "huckleberry" there and thought that we could add another species to our list. It turns out that all the berries from these plants were dry and sour this year. Maybe they weren't ripe yet? They certainly looked ready. Did we really know what ripe looked like? We decided to check our guides to find out for sure and switched our gathering over to Vaccinium angustifolium, the lowbush blueberry, a plant that we know so well that even if Euell Gibbons himself appeared from the bushes to argue with our identification, we'd be confident that we knew what it was. Boy, were they good too. At the end of our forage, we went around and gathered a branch from each shrub and took it home to our field guides.

I stayed up late into the night with my keys and my hand lens trying to figure out just what these "huckleberry" plants were. Now, I feel pretty handy with a good key. I know the differences between spike and racemes, between bundle scars and petioles. But I could not tell what these shrubs were. I couldn't even tell if they were a kind of blueberry or not. In fact, in the one species that I was dead certain was a blueberry, I couldn't even seem to find the defining field mark, tiny warts that supposedly speckle the stems.

At some point I decided that I'd need more help than my trusty field guides and went to sleep.

Conclusion: OK, so maybe this isn't the best story of my inexpertise. Blueberries and their relatives are not the easiest plants to key out to species. However, the story does illustrate clear limits of my plant knowledge. I am not a professional botanist. I am just a guy who really loves plants and likes to learn about them whenever he can.

Reason #2: We took Baby Yub-Yub wading in a nearby river during the hot afternoon and sat in the shade of a bridge while we ate our lunch. While Yub-Yub chased the local dogs through the shallows, I noticed a basswood tree growing along the shore. It's flowers had passed, and beneath the leafy wings that used to shelter the blossoms, there were now little green nuts. I'd thought I'd read somwhere that these nuts were edible, so I filled my hat and took them home. Sure enough, according to several of our edible plant guidebooks, basswood nutlets were tasty if impractical to process. So I started to peel and eat the tiny white nutmeats. I thought they tasted mild. Ooga thought they tasted . . . . unripe. Truth is, we don't know if they're unripe or not. Should we wait until they turn brown and hard and fall to the ground. So far we've felt no ill effect, but I'd prefer not to find out the hard way by eating a bunch of unripe fruit. I've already done that with apples before when I was on a survival campout in August. Sure, they looked round and tender, but after eating three or four I felt nauseated the whole afternoon.

Conclusion: Ooga and I are at a very early stage of familiarity with most of the plants that we eat. Although we are comfortable with identification ("huckleberries" excepted), many of them, we've never eaten before. It's a lot like our daughter who is just learning how to tell whether a blueberry is ready or not by its color. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor would be that time I bought an Asian pear at the grocery store because I'd never seen anything like it and . . . hey, I like pears. Well, for those of you who don't know, Asian pears are nothing like the familiar pears from the orchard farmstand. We tried cooking it as suggested by the short description at the grocer, but it didn't really pique our fancy. Do we write off Asian pears as something we don't like? Do we assume that we prepared it incorreclty? Do we even know if it was ripe or not?

Think of all the specialized knowledge we have about everyday foods we know:

Leave those green bananas on the counter for a few days before you eat them. Don't eat the potatos raw. You don't need to refrigerate rice, but your milk won't last long if you don't. The apple core is tough and not necessarily worth eating. Lately, I've been very aware of our inexperience. Although we are learning a lot from this project, we are not experts. We are stumbling toward knowledge by fits and starts. It is a great place to be. We are full of wonder and enthusiasm. We are constantly being startled and surprised and delighted by new discoveries.

Mr. Thayer, we are in no hurry to become experts on wild food. We are novices and amateurs. But amateurs are motivated by love (amare in Latin from whence the word amateur came). Forgive us if we are too anxious to share through this blog the excitement we have found.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I can really relate. So much foraging is about how much risk am I willing to take. Certain wild foods I know really well, but I’m always humbly aware of how much more I don’t know. The plants and mushrooms that I don’t know are so much greater in number.

    I’ve learned to give things second and third tries. The first matsutake mushroom I cooked got dumped in the compost.

    It’s been a dismal summer for mushrooms. I’ve had none to share with you. I found a few chanterelles, but mostly I haven’t even bothered to look for them. I found a good edible polypore mushroom, but it was on a lawn where they had recently had a pesticide sign. I found another huge polypore mushroom that had gone way past its edible stage.

    I’ve been gathering berries and milkweed pods.