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. 

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