Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Foraging, Hunting, and Gathering: A Good Way to Get Out of the House

Armageddon, Climate Change, Covid, looming recession, nuclear winter, Ragnarök, runaway inflation, World War III – people have all sorts of reasons for wanting to be able to survive “off the grid.” It’s hard to know what to prepare for. Biofuel, bomb shelters, solar panels, small farm husbandry, weapon caches—few options offer any degree of luxury. But most strive for at least a certain level of sustainable self-sufficiency. We seem to be trying to recapture the modicum of independence enjoyed in the Piney Woods of southeast Kentucky in the late 1800s.

My family scrapbook preserves faded pictures of country cousins back in Bell and Harlan counties. The “hollers.” My kin were well enough educated (Grandma Gertrude Howard née Bailey, and her eldest son Carl, were schoolteachers). The kids were well enough dressed (but barefoot, except for special occasions), and well enough fed (but no one was fat). They were healthy enough, and happy enough. Still, you can see in the eyes staring back from the black and white or sepia photos that life was serious business.

They kept busy. They smoked hams, dried beef, “canned” all sorts of things, rendered lard, tanned skins, and shoed horses, oxen, and mules. They built fences, went hunting, caught fish, supported tenant farmers, and hired help. Things weren’t “easy”– but everyone pitched in.

They accessed the bounty of the farm and the bounty of the surrounding woods with equal dexterity, foraging for food and procuring medicinal simples. They cured headaches with willow water, bay leaf or feverfew tea, staunched wounds and treated cuts with blackberry leaf poultices or tincture of horsebalm and settled stomach upsets with tea blended from pounded pumpkin seed, celery seed, chamomile, and mint.

If the small farm has receded beyond the reach of the vast majority of urban and suburban dwellers, foraging is enjoying a resurgence. Whether or not foraging turns out to be a genetic predilection that fulfills primal, competitive, or territorial needs, strolling through urban trails, parks, and wooded paths on the lookout for affordable (free) edibles and herbs is enjoying a renewed relevancy.

Never foraged? Oh, I think maybe you have. If you’ve ever plucked a bay leaf from a decorative laurel hedge, picked blackberries from an overgrown abandoned lot, found a patch of wild strawberries or an untended apple tree, you’ve foraged. If you’ve strolled through wooded paths and harvested miner’s lettuce or wood sorrel, you’ve foraged. If you’re lucky enough to live near a beach or estuary, you’ve likely gathered limpets, mussels, and/or oysters. You may have dug for clams or harvested sea beans or sampled goose necked barnacles. It’s all foraging.

This bounty is by nature seasonal and dictated by climate and geography. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s chanterelles from August to November and morels in the spring. Throughout summer there are a bewildering array of berries—from salmonberries and thimbleberries to huckleberries, blueberries, mulberries, wild strawberries, and choke cherries. In August, Olympic or Columbian blackberries repay the vigilant with a sweet, if small harvest, and by September their invasive Himalayan blackberry cousins glut railroad tracks, derelict properties, and neglected byways.

When I was younger, there were remnants of homesteads, farms, and pioneer settlements with deserted apple, pear, plum, and cherry orchards. These are fewer and farther between today but can still surprise and reward the observant stroll with heirloom fruit.

There is less “mainstream” flora awaiting the slightly better-informed gatherer. In the spring, the tender leaves and stalks of the common stinging nettle, gathered with care (they are called stinging nettles for a reason), cook up like spinach. A quick blanch in lightly salted boiling water takes care of the “stinging” and they make for a super Eggs Florentine. That same plant, left to mature produces soft, supple, and super strong twine, and the flowering plant is thought to treat maladies ranging from arthritis to urinary tract infections as a strong tea.

Red clover (trifolium pratense) blossoms have been used to treat arthritis, asthma, menopause, and whooping cough. Both red clover and white clover have been harvested to make skin creams and ointments.

Wild roses and their abandoned “cultivated” varieties are generally free from pesticides. Their petals can be added to salads, buds can be dried for teas, and “hips” can be boiled down for preserves (be sure to sieve, strain, or scrape out the seeds—they aren’t poisonous, but can cause “itching” on the way out).

Fresh young dandelion greens make for great (slightly peppery) additions to salads. Dandelion root tea acts as a diuretic and is believed by many to be a useful tonic for the liver. The root can also be roasted and ground as a coffee extension/substitute. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard a lot about dandelion wine.

Madrone bark, with its earthy, cinnamon/mushroom notes has been used to brew tea, flavor risotto, and even give gelato and ice cream a je ne sais quoi quality.

Harvest what you know. At a certain level I know that black walnuts, filberts, hickory nuts, paw paws, pecans, persimmons, and pokeweed might grow back east or down south. They don’t grow in my neck of the woods, and I probably wouldn’t know them if they bit me. Again, only harvest what you know. There are lots of plants that flourish in my various haunts that I don’t know well enough to gather, like fiddle back ferns (pick the wrong relative and it may well contain carcinogens) or any mushroom that isn’t a morel or chanterelle. I know that there is a range of edible mushrooms out there, but if I’m not sure? I leave them alone. I’ve read about salal and Oregon grape and see them on the trail from time to time but have never harvested them. Again, it all comes back to comfort levels and caution. Even the old pioneer standby of pine needle tea (rich in Vitamin C) requires careful selection. Some varieties of pine such as ponderosa, lodgepole, and Monterey can be toxic. Stay within your comfort zone and do not push that zone without expert advice.

Even if you come back empty-handed from a given stroll, the fresh air probably did you good. I’ve read that foraging satisfies childhood urges that progressive public schools encourage us to bury, and that getting dirty down on your hands and knees digging dandelion roots or picking kinnikinnik may gratify a puerile urge to steal, to crawl furtively through the woods to discover and guard secret places.

I don’t think things need to get that cerebral.

If foraging gets you out of your Covid stay-at-home rut, or inflation-imposed “I can’t afford to fill my car’s gas tank” quarantine, or “I can’t afford recession-driven price hikes” seclusion, and stimulates your imagination, while adding variety to your menu and items to your pantry? It’s probably a good thing.

has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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