Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Sunday, May 29, 2011
We seem to grow stinging nettles that don't sting! At first, I thought they were just low sting, but this week, I found a lovely new patch outside our house. Another patch of what seemed to be nettles grew in front of the ones I was certain were nettles. I have never been the plant ID person in our family. I tried. I found a few subtle differences, and I was fairly convinced that the "nettles" in front of the real nettles were not actually nettles. So, I touched them. No sting. I touched the real nettles. No sting. So much for a control.
When Thag got home from work, I asked for his assitance. I was right--the first plants were, the second plants weren't. I collected some of the real things to prepare a quiche. I really wanted to test their sting. I washed, snipped, and cut them with my bare hands. After about five full minutes of working with them, I had a slight tingle on the side of my left ring finger. Nothing else. I wasn't brave enough to try and eat them raw, but I wonder...
My father-in-law tells a story about his sister encountering stinging nettles and being swollen and in pain for a week. I know the degree of sting varies among location, but the lack of sting in our plants is kind of unbelieveable. But I am not complaining!
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
My ancestors were professional foragers. So were yours. Before 10,000 years ago all of our ancestors were. There is no doubt that hunting and gathering food has been a viable profession for humans. But is it still? In 21st century New England can a family reasonably (and legally) subsist on wild foods gathered by their own hands?
I know of some wilderness survival teachers who have made dubious claims to have done this. Their stories are vague about the details. I don't believe many of their tales. I read the blog of a guy in the British Isles who attempted to live a full year on wild foods. He had to quit after a few months because he found that foraging was a full time job and that it took a paying job to earn enough money to live in his apartment (or house). He could not do both.
Samuel Thayer outlines a month of living on wild foods in his book Nature's Garden. It is the most thorough description of how someone might become a professional forager that I have seen. Yet it was only a month, and Sam used a lot of stored foods from his well-stocked larder of gathered foods. I don't mean to diminish the accomplishment, but what I want is to someday be able to live with the land the way my ancestors did ages ago before glass canning jars and pressure cookers.
It would be far more difficult to live as a forager in my time and place than it would have been even only 300 years ago. I've had people tell me my whole life that, "You can't go back." The reason they usually give is the staggering population increase and corresponding decrease in wild places in which to forage. But I am convinced that this problem can be overcome. I'm not really competing with anybody for wild foods (as long as oil is cheap). People just aren't interested enough. And wilderness areas while important, are not the best places to forage anyway. My best foraging is in the pastoral patchwork of farmland and woodland that comprises much of rural America. As I see it the real impediments to modern foraging as a way of life are not about population or loss of the wilds at all. Instead I think there are five things that stand in the way are things that most people never think about.
- The foods are gone. Chestnuts are gone. Wild rice is gone from much of its former range. The fish runs of shad are gone (or so diminished as to be practically gone). Anadromous fish, in general, are no longer abundant enough to be a staple. Gamebirds like the passenger pigeon are gone. We have certainly gained some new edible plants from Europe. In fact, much of what we experiment with on the foraging family are invasive plants that the professional foragers wouldn't have had. However, most of them are greens and herbs. They are nutritious, but low in calories. Compared to the calorie rich food sources that we have lost, these shoots, leaves, and buds hardly make up for the food sources we have lost.
- Access to the foods is reduced. It is a myth that native people would have had unfettered foraging access. Families, clans, and nations laid claim to land, claims that they defended against trespassers. At contact times, the native people of southern Vermont lived as semi-nomadic forager-gardeners. Family units had hunting territories of close to a five mile radius. Taboos restricted which places could be hunted at which time. Some resources, like the best fishing spots on the big rivers, were shared among larger groups. Also shared among larger groups were the best farmlands where they would grow corn. Access to land and food was limited for professional hunters as it is today. But even so, the modern day forager is restricted to significantly fewer places. Today, commonly held lands are much smaller, much farther apart, and much more restricted. Hunting seasons, bag limits, and gathering laws are our society's way of safeguarding these resources for the future. But do these restriction make professional hunting and gathering a legal impossibility?
- Distribution of the foods has changed. A lot of people seem to imagine the landscape of our ancestors was similar to the forests of today. This is not really so. Today's forests are different. They are the product of human disturbance of the landscape. The forests of 500 years ago, so far as can be told, were dominated by different trees, had different ecologies, and featured an abundance of different creatures. The forests of centuries past had a greater variety of species and a greater mix of trees of all different ages. There were some unique habitats that no longer exist like the New England prarie. (I'm not making this up. Check out Tom Wessels's Reading the Forested Landscape.)
- Traditions of food have been lost. We learn most quickly from a mixture of good teachers and lots of practice. Today's forager had few of both. My ambition to be a professional hunter-gatherer or at least a hunter-gatherer of professional level skill is stymied because of a dearth of role-models. There are folks, like us, who enjoy using wild foods to make our civilized foods more interesting. But our foods are still civilized. There is so much knowledge that is needed to live off the land. A lot of the pieces of this knowlege are readily out there. But I have not yet seen an example of anyone living with all of those peices put together in a single unified whole. The responsibilities of life in our society leave most of us with little time to make foraging anything but a hobby. The professionals of ages past would have learned from master foragers who were part of millenium-long traditions. They would have devoted many hours to the mastery of those skills. Most modern foragers are starting their traditions more-or-less from scratch.
- Foraging is no longer a collaborative process. What made foraging work for humans was the tribe. Foraging with a small group of compatriots in a kind of foraging co-operative was the most efficient and most productive approach to meeting foraging needs. Ooga and I have thought of this often. Two people are more than twice as productive as one. Three or four people can cover more ground and increase the odds of bringing in high yield but less reliable foods. The tribe was a kind of insurance policy. If you spent all day hunting and came home empty-handed, someone else had probably had success fishing. This, I think, is the most critical missing piece.
Whew! It's easy to get discouraged in the face of this daunting list. But I have great hope that I will someday realize my dream of being professional forager. Despite all these strikes against the would-be modern forager, there are many foraging advantages that we have today that our ancestors did not have. Stay tuned for a future post on things that our foraging ancestors would envy.
I have no answer to the question that began this post. I really don't know if hunting and gathering is a viable occupation in 21st century New England. I deeply hope that it is, and I dream of the day when someone proves that it is so--not just as some survivalists tall tale, but as a real and replicable model of the modern foraging life.
Is that dream possible?
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
We have read about people finding obscene amounts of tasty edible weeds growing in their gardens, but we generally just have plantain (which we really dislike).
This year, however, as Yub Yub and I turned over the garden, we found a lovely batch of sheep sorrel growing among our strawberries. She and I collected them (though I know it looks like we are collecting violets!) and made a simple and delicious soup which all three of us devoured.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
So, for Mother's Day, I made a big one for my mother (and all the other family members gathered at her house). It was easy and delicious. I took a bowlful of the dandelion marmelade I made last spring and mixed it with a small amount of honey to make it easily spreadable. I covered the brie with a thick layer of marmelade. Then I covered the top with toasted black walnuts. I baked the brie for 25 minutes until it was nice and melty and served it with toasted slices of French baguette. So yummy! We'll add a picture soon!