Thursday, July 27, 2017

Accidental Forager

Our adventures in foraging began purely by chance. One day, several summers ago, my son pulled me out to the field to see a cluster of daisies he’d found growing there. Hidden beneath the happy white flowers was a treasure trove of wild blueberries, their small bushes spread out through the field like a lagoon of barely hidden delectability.

We picked those berries for days, eating some as soon as we’d plucked them from the bush – sweet and sun-warmed – and dropping the rest into small buckets for later. Further into that summer we discovered a bumper crop of blackberries ripening in a tangled thicket grown up from the front field. The thorny canes were so tall we were sometimes encompassed within them as we picked, earning many scratches in our efforts. By the end of the season, we had a freezer drawer filled with summer berries, a taste of sunshine to pull out and enjoy in the coldest, darkest days of winter.

Our foraging has evolved since then, although I’d place us still firmly in the novice category of finding wild food. We are casual foragers, not like the wildcrafting pros who make flour from acorns, dig up cattail rhizomes, batter and fry milkweed flowers, and who-knows-what else.

Beyond our favorite berry patches, there are a few small stashes of chanterelle mushrooms we look for after a summer rain, when they pop up in clusters. This year we found a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, blooming like some exotic forest flower, on a tree in the neighborhood and added that to our list of good things to eat. Morels remain elusive, but perhaps someday we’ll stumble across those, too.

The kids know that the leaves of wood sorrel are edible – and tasty. A couple summers back they took to calling these heart-shaped greens “snacks” whenever they’d spot them along a hiking trail or at the edge of the garden. They’ve tasted ramps and fiddleheads and use the leaves of plantain growing wild about everywhere to ease the itch of horsefly bites and bee stings.

Nearly all of our first foraging expeditions emerged by happenstance, when we were out doing or seeking other things. A brief flash of orange during a bike ride revealed a throng of chanterelles. While playing under the lilac bushes, the kids have found huge meadow mushrooms tucked away there. The ramps, just the smallest cluster, we discovered at the corner of an old dump beyond the field as we were examining items discarded by some long ago stranger and somehow, now, intriguing. One year on vacation, as we walked back from the beach, we found – and devoured – a stash of wild blackberries.

I’ve taken to stowing plastic containers in the car in case we find something good to gather during our various travels. Even the dog is in on the action, wandering her own path through the fields and eating blueberries straight from the bush.

Some people find these meager hunting-and-gathering expeditions odd. How do we know these things are safe to eat, they ask. (When unsure, I always check with friends who are well-versed in eating wild things.) They wonder why we’d spend an hour in a hot field picking berries when the grocery store down the road has them by the pint for a few bucks.

It is, of course, about more than the food. During our foraging forays, we gain awareness of the places where we find our edible treasures, form a different perspective of some familiar places. We take notice of things we otherwise wouldn’t. Is the soil wet or sandy? In the sun or the shade? What kinds of trees grow near where we find chanterelles? What else is blooming or ripening at the same time? How many different types of interesting creepy-crawlies can we find in the blueberry field – grasshoppers and spiders and caterpillars covered in fuzzy prickles.

There is also something therapeutic to taking a break from summer’s whirlwind of activities to crouch in a field of wild berries on a hot summer day, a calmative effect in the rhythm of plucking berries from a bush and dropping them into a bucket. No matter how many times we find fiddleheads pushing through the leaf litter in the spring, or how many chanterelles we pick, or how many berries we gather, there remains a sense of wonder that these things grow. That they are simply there for the taking. That they taste so good.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 28, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

“You know everybody, Aunt Meghan,” my niece told me soon after my brother’s family arrived in town early this month, traveling from Californian suburbia to the relative wilds of northern New England.

I certainly don’t know everyone around here, but small town living generally includes a considerable awareness of who your neighbors are – and where they are and what they are doing and with whom. If you’re looking for anonymity, this is probably not the place for you. But small towns are pretty good at taking care of their own.

As I drove around with a car full of California and New Hampshire kids, my own children and I remarked that so-and-so’s car was at the post office, we waved to friends, we stopped along backroads near home to greet a neighbor now and then. For the California kids, who live in a place with a steady stream of strangers flowing past, I guess that aspect of small town-ness seemed quaintly odd.

I have lived most of my adult life where everybody – or a relatively large percentage of folks I come into contact with, anyway – knows my name, or at least my face. In Crested Butte I moved within various social and work and skiing circles, but there were large areas of overlap among these. Even if everybody didn’t really know everybody else, a general sense of familiarity permeated the scene in this small ski town.

In the village where I lived for a summer on an Irish peninsula, I was known by several names: “the Yank” who worked for the Diamonds, the “horsey woman” (because I was a horse-trekking guide), the American girl who played soccer with the Connemara Coasters. While everybody there didn’t know my name, they all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing. It is hard to hide a newcomer in a small village where people are intricately related, especially a newcomer with a strange accent.

When I first moved back east, I found it disconcerting when strangers would stop me at the grocery store or in the ski lift line or during some social event and remark excitedly that they had known me when I was THIS HIGH. Not having been paying close attention at the age of 6 or 7 and having traversed two decades since then, I would smile politely, usually having no idea who my friendly accoster was.

I’ve been here long enough now that I am rarely approached by unknown, long-ago acquaintances. These people have long since become familiar. But it is still nearly impossible to navigate local errands without some delay from bumping into someone who wants a word – or several.

A quick run into the post office to check the mail can take half an hour. Stopping at the store for a carton of milk on the way home might consume just as long. I’ve even been waylaid on early morning jogs when I run into neighbors and slow down to chat briefly, while trying to catch my breath. You simply learn to expect delays – and how to politely run away when you don’t have the time to be distracted.

The last afternoon the California crew was here, I took the kids down to the river for a pre-dinner swim. I ran into a friend there, the only other person we saw, and had a chat while the kids and dogs were splashing and exploring and looking for interesting rocks.

On the way home, there was what constitutes a traffic jam on the narrow backroad: three cars traveling in close procession toward us, plus a couple of pedestrians and a dog in the road. I yelled a greeting out the window to the first car, which contained summer friends we hadn’t seen yet this season. A bit further along, I greeted neighbors who were out walking the dog. I noted another neighbor outside doing yardwork.

“Yep, you know everyone,” my niece confirmed from the passenger seat, no longer surprised by this phenomenon.

Later that evening, one of those neighbors sent me a text. She’d found a camera on the bridge by the swimming hole and determined from the photos on it that it belonged to one of us. It did, although we hadn’t yet noticed it missing. Personal item returned practically before it’s even lost? That’s just a benefit to living where everybody knows your name.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 14, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.