A Tablespoon and a Half

Here in the ripening spring, the succession of species just keeps a rollin’ along.

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A hidden forest of Milk Thistle recently announced its arrival, dangerous amethyst crowns trumpeting the sky during an evening walk. The next morning we went a gatherin’.

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Milk Thistle flowers are one of the bigger wild thistles that remind you of their relatives, the artichokes. Like their cousins, the flowers are delicious, albeit bite-sized.

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The leaves are also edible as a green and I hear folks rave about ’em, but so far I’ve been daunted by their stiff and leathery texture. Milk Thistle is easily identifiable by the striking white veins in the leaves. Other thistles, like the italian, also have white veins, but not as distinct. If you have to ask “Is that Milk Thistle” then you know it’s not.

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The flower of an Italian Thistle. Also distinctly different.

Fern was my fearless foraging companion, bravely risking getting her eye poked out at every turn. She was adept with the scissors, even using the trick I taught her while gathering nettles…using the blades like fingers to hold, clip and transport.

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At first I was concerned less about snakes and more about ticks, since I’ve never actually come across a snake in tall grass. And then last week we watched the mother of all gopher snakes go into a weedy patch and I realized my bravado could end up being stupidity. Boots, from now on. (Although gopher snakes, fyi, are harmless).

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Thick gloves are necessary. Milk Thistles are delicious and know it, so they protect themselves well.

We placed our floral jewels in the fridge and two days later I spent 2 hours preparing them. They can be steamed or boiled like artichokes, but first the spines of death need to be removed, as well as the petals and tough outer leaves.

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Again, using scissors like fingers, peel the spines back and then clip them all at once along the bottom.

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After prepping, they are diminished and humble little nekkid babies. Boil or steam for 20-30 minutes.

Unlike artichokes, there is no foreplay with the tough outer petals. You get right to the heart of the matter, finding the succulence below the center flowers. You may even find the beginnings of seeds. Scoop it all out.

What you are left with will be just a morsel. A taste of wild love. After all our hard work, we ended up with only a tablespoon and a half of thistle heart. Eaten with full attention, and a palate on full alert, it was more than enough. Anything more would have been excess. While an actual meal was required afterwards, our souls were well satiated.

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Except for harvesting wild fruit or medicinals, the bite sized morsel has been my standard experience with foraging. While whole meals can certainly be made when there is an abundance, the possibility of “living off the land” by foraging is a possibility that disappeared with the wilderness. For better or worse, we are now forced into cultivation to survive as a species. So it’s important, when foraging, to do it with a spirit of adventure and communion, rather than one of amassing or consumption.

A walk down our road to meet the neighbors is full of these little tastes.

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Marshmallows everywhere are fruiting with their little “cheeses”. Peeling off the outer leaves, pop the little wheel into your mouth and savor the crunch and…sliminess. Like okra, the mallow fruit are mucilaginous, but just tiny enough that the texture in your mouth is addictive, rather than disgusting.

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There’s a local cultivar of blackberry gone wild that I can’t wait to try.

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Look at these hummers.

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California Mugwort.

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Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot.

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A walk through the countryside needs no other companion than an oatstraw in the mouth, a leaf of pineapple sage on the tongue. Like a homeopathic dose, the scent of mugwort on my hands or california buckeye caught on the wind acts as restorative, just enough for the body, the primitive mind, to come back into balance. Thresholds of separation are diminished, and your steps are the rustles of the grass, your breath the flicker of a snake tongue, your creativity the glimpse of a weasel’s face.

Foraging requires atunement, a knowledge of species, an ability to find and discover, a willingness to try new things. And as it is with all life cycles, there is reciprocity. Everything given, you get. And there is no distinction between the two.

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This post is dedicated to my Aunt Helene…librarian, storyteller, adventurer. She taught me how to swim, how to walk barefoot and introduced me to my first wild edible…the checkerberry (American wintergreen) that grows on the mossy carpet of the Maine forest. She also introduced me to the greatest literary loves of my childhood – “The Narnia series” by C.S. Lewis and “Little Women”, by Louisa May Alcott. Aunt Helene passed away on Saturday, peacefully, in a bedroom that overlooked a garden in bloom. She was 89.

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3 thoughts on “A Tablespoon and a Half

  1. Mary, I love this so much. All of it, from your beautiful pictures bathed in golden light and loving detail, to your carefully paced, inviting words. And Fern herself looks like a blooming flower shrub from this land, while becoming more radiantly Fern at every post, if possible.

    Thank you for all these delights :o)

  2. Sorry to hear about your Aunt. Sounds like she was a wonderful person.

    I love your lessons in wild food. I’m not sure all of those things grow over here – but I sure like to see if I can spot them when I’m out and about!

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