One of my first, and still one of my favorite, lessons for learning about plants was to become in tune with my environment: the weather, the flows of water, the places of special energy, Mother Nature herself. Susun Weed
Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization. Aldo Leopold
“I’m a forager!!!” I exclaimed to my husband, Cam, as I burst through the door last Wednesday evening.
It had been a wonderful day in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The cool cloudy morning had opened up into the most glorious of seventy-degree sunny afternoons, and we, the eight of us, had carpooled our way, in two vehicles, north on County Road 550 toward Big Bay, for an afternoon/evening foraging workshop with our buddy and forager extra-ordinaire, Sue Belanger. Sue lives in a charming cabin with her partner on the Yellow Dog River, surrounded by forest and river and lake — a perfect home-base for a day of traipsing through the woods and along a two-track dirt road in search of wild edibles. The leaves on the trees above us were unfurling before our eyes and the forest floor was an ever-changing carpet of spring beauties and violets and marsh marigolds, of flowers that I recognized and ones that were new to me, of plants that were just bursting through the late-to-thaw earth and plants in full bloom. And we learned things as we moseyed along. So many things. We sampled wintergreen and violet and sedum leaves, munched on the buds of dandelions, and, with our trusty trowels, dug wild leeks from the ground. We collected leaves and buds and flowers and roots from these plants, and dropped our samples into bags and buckets, the “groceries” that we would unpack for a meal that we were going to prepare later in the early evening
And hours later, back in my neighborhood home, Cam’s reply to my enthusiastic proclamation was matter-of-fact. Although he seemed interested in hearing about the adventures of my day, he was non-plussed. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said. “Your mother was a forager.” And it’s true; she was. She scouted the cottage lawn for dandelion greens, the tender new shoots that she sautéed with sweet onion; she pulled back the seaweed from the rocks at low tide and gathered the mussels and periwinkles, and steamed them in a white wine broth; she scrounged the small shell beach at the tip of Sister Point for the sun-dried clumps of sea moss that she then boiled into a pudding for desert. Sure, she cherished the domestic, the civilized, too. She swept the beach sand and forest dirt from the plywood cottage floor each morning, shook out the braided rug that she had created herself, watered the inside plants from an antique brass pitcher that was her mother’s, fed us the sea moss pudding in delicate china bowls, switched on the classical music when we went outside to play. And at night, as the sea lapped the beach just feet from our cottage home and the tides flowed in and out and the winds blew through the spruce trees’ branches, she harnessed in the cowlicks and her hair’s summer- time waves with a brush and bobby pins and a gold-framed mirror.
Yes, my mother, who loved her ancestor’s hand-me-down treasures and loved to read and read and read and loved to cook intricate recipes from all over the world, cherished the nest that she had built for us, her baby birds, and she did her best to feather it with domesticity. But she couldn’t help it, every morning, the cowlicks boinged back and the waves, the ones on her head, flew this way and that, and the spiders, they moved right in with us and the floor — how can you keep the sand and dirt from taking over? And the rain, it pattered on the cottage roof and sometimes dripped through the cracks, and the rust from the well’s water left marks on our hand-woven placemats. And the seaweed is perfect fertilizer for a domestic garden. And the wee birds, her children, we were a little wild, too, with our dirty feet and pine pitch-stained knees. And, most of the time, it was okay to have a mother who wasn’t as neat and tidy as the television mothers of the 1960’s, a mother who baked our bread from whole wheat flour and made the sourdough for pancakes and coated our chicken with her own wheat germ and brewer’s yeast version of Shake & Bake. And we liked the sea moss pudding and the tiny periwinkles and the dandelion greens, and it was only occasionally that we cringed and ducked down in the back of the car, when she did things like pull over and scout the woods for wild asparagus, only occasionally did we wish for a more “normal” mother, the television-type of mother.
My mother was perfectly suited for her cottage home. The sweet Maine cove provided a haven from the wildness of the sea, yet, it seeped, in too, the salt air and the sun and the sea breeze. And, as she grew older and the cottage grew older, the boundaries between domestic and wild became even more blurry. There were mice families living in the old bunkhouse where we used to sleep, and squirrels nesting on the roof and the walls were getting shakier. And my mother, she lived long and well in this world of wild domesticity, and I, her daughter, savored my visits to her nest by the sea. And yet, I couldn’t live like that, with the mice in the bunkhouse, and the walls of my home held together with spit and pine pitch, with water that makes my hair turn orange and a roof that doesn’t hold out the rain. Sometimes, I’m shocked at myself, that I, the girl with the tough bare feet and a skill for hopping across rocks as though it’s no effort of all, I, who love the wildness of a storm and am not afraid to wander through the woods alone, have chosen for over thirty years to live in a suburban neighborhood, in a house that is tidy, with walls that are secure. And yet, I. too, can’t keep out the wild. And I don’t want to. The deer wander into our yard and lick the seeds from our feeder. Hawks swoop down from the maple and aim their vision on the bright yellow finches. A pileated woodpecker pounds great holes in the rotting jack pine. And the spiders, they move right in. And sometimes I turn a blind eye to them and sometimes I carefully place them outside. And dandelions, I eat them, and violet flowers, too, and almost every day, I find myself out in those woods that are wild, find myself in the presence of bear scat and wolf tracks, find myself howling with those howling coyotes.
I suppose it’s natural for we humans to build our nests. Our furry and feathery friends build theirs as well. But it’s in us, too, this call of the wild. And so, as I lay in my bed, my king-sized blanketed bed, in my room painted the color of the sea, as I lay beside Cam last Wednesday evening, with the windows wide open, the peeper frogs sang their songs to us and a soft warm breeze blew in. And I told him, as we snuggled under freshly-washed sheets that smelled like the Upper Peninsula air, of the meal that we, the foragers had created. A wild meal of braised dandelion greens and violet leaves and fiddlehead ferns, thrown into a frittata made with eggs from a neighbor’s chickens. And the flowers of the dandelion dipped into cornmeal and made into a blossoming fritter. And a pesto of wild leeks and hickory nuts, and wild mushroom popovers. It was a meal that my fellow forager mother would have loved.