Mushroom Foraging

Today, Barbara and I went for a mushroom and lichen hunt at and around the meadow with a woman name Kay, a local very, very knowledgeable amateur naturalist.  We found a LOT of mushrooms.  Apparently, the conditions were somewhere between very good and ideal for such a hunt.  Check out a small portion of our find:






Kay was amazing.  We walked for maybe two hours, and we found 24 kinds of mushrooms, plus nearly a dozen types of lichen, and some slimes.  I’d say that about 1/2 were, in principle, safe for eating.  A few of them she said were hallucinogenic in certain quantities, but deadly in others.  Some of them could be used to make natural dyes.  For someone like me, who always thought of mushrooms as basically the shape that has given its name to a nuclear cloud, it was illuminating to see the gorgeous variety of shapes and sizes and colors that they come in.


My favorite lichen were Cladonia cristatella, or British Soldiers.  You have to look closely; they are the ones with the red tips on the top of the wooden fence rail.  I e-mailed my brother who lives in Ireland to find out what the common name for Cladonia is there, since I didn’t think that the whole “red coat” reference would go over particularly well that close to England.  Turns out that they call them, yes, British Soldiers.

Barbara made a pic of a bunch of the mushroom laid out on a piece of linen.  I’m sure it’ll be awesome.

Keeping Options (and Seeds) Alive: Common Ground Country Fair

When we moved to Maine full-time, I more than doubled the size of our garden. I’ve waxed poetic about it in other posts, so I’ll spare you that here.

But I want to say a few things about it in the context of having gone to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, this weekend. That fair brings together thousands of people (more than 50,000 were projected to attend, I think, this year) interested in various aspects of “country living.” That appellation doesn’t always feel like it settles well on my shoulders. I like hanging out in urban settings and am at best a country novice. But the ethos of the Fair is absolutely one I share. It’s about re-claiming our capacity to take care of ourselves well.

And that’s what I want to say in terms of the garden here. The point, for me, of growing our food is the same as that of most folks: great quality, good exercise with a delicious pay-off, local, sustainable, no fears about what is in or on our fruits and veggies.

And all that is celebrated at the fair, for sure. But it is done in the context of self-reliance, and about celebrating the fullness & richness of a self-sufficient life. When I think about self-reliance, I don’t think about it in terms of knowing how to make cheese and put up preserves. Those are fun, and can certainly be a part of a self-reliant life. But really, what I think it means, at core, is having the skills to meet life’s demands, and to do so in a way that maximizes your freedom. That’s a heady word. And I don’t mean it in a political sense; I mean it in a philosophical sense. Being free from the inability to take good care.

As that last probably suggests, I come to the Common Ground Fair and its celebration of self-reliance from a fairly cerebral rather than intuitive place. And because of that, my ideas of sufficiency have been informed not so much but what I think I need to eat or grow or wear as by what I think I need to do (or not do). And what I think I need to do, at least what I’ve thought for the last few years, is keep old seeds in production. Several years ago, I went to a talk by Gary Paul Nabhan about RAFT (Restoring America’s Food Traditions), where he gave out lists of foods that used to be prevalent in New England but that are now rare or endangered. So, I plant off that list as much as I can. (He has a downloadable copy on his website, which you can find at:

For me, the intersection between the idea of taking good care and preserving old seeds is about potential. When I was growing up, my dad used to always urge me to “keep your options open.” He wanted me to be sure that when an opportunity arose, I’d be ready to assess it and take it. I’m sure he gave me lots of other advice, but that’s the bit that rings in his voice in my head. In every seed, I literally see potential, literally see an option. And if they go extinct, those options are gone forever. I don’t know what those options might mean for me, for my community, for the ecology of the region, for our foodshed as the climate changes, and so I don’t want to take the chance of losing them before we know.

Keeping them in production keeps an option open a little longer. Maybe, possibly, long enough.

Foraging, Part Two

I realize that I forgot to say what we ate the other day. We found (and for the most part tried):

grape leaves
wild carrot
evening primrose
elderberry (the flowers, no berries yet)
wild roses (petals)
curly dock
purple clover
Japanese knotweed
wild lettuce
ox-eye daisy leaves
violet leaves
wood sorrel
pineapple weed
wild garlic
water lily
white pine
anise hyssop

We skipped a few that needed to be cooked to be safe to eat. But check out that list. All those edible plants. In a fairly small place. In June.

Bountiful as it seems, we probably burned more calories finding them than we consumed. Despite enabling earlier humans to meet many of their nutritional needs prior to the emergence of agriculture, despite its continued importance in the diets of many rural peoples around the world to this day, despite being restaurant-chic in wealthy nations now, it’s not an easy way to eat.

When I posted the last entry, I promised that this time I would share some ideas about why it’s so popular right now. One forager, a guy named Hank Shaw who I heard on NPR a while ago (his cookbook is listed in the last post) said he suspects part of the reason foraging is gaining ground is that some people want to give up a little of their comfort and convenience in eating, that they see foraging as a novel and delicious alternative to consuming mainstream food. He likens the satisfaction to that had in eating a fish you’ve caught yourself: “it’s the effort that you’re tasting.”

I asked a few of my friends why they find it appealing, and their answers were different than that, but not inconsistent with it. Barbara described being filled with a sense of hope at beholding such abundance. Our friend Toni, who is in yoga training, said it was one more indication that what we see depends on perspective: what had been weeds yesterday were great sources of free and healthy food today. And Matt, who’s a Marxist, stressed the fact of foraging being free, with an impromptu and impassioned polemic about reclaiming our food from “the clutches of Big Ag.” Given how hungry we were when we left, I doubt “Big Ag” has much to worry about. Yet.

I want to add a few more possibilities into the mix. I think that foraging reconnects us to the visceral experience of eating, as home gardening and farming do, but maybe even more so. And it gives us access to flavors that are too particular to make it in the marketplace. And also to foods that won’t survive transport in a cargo container. In those ways, Mr. Marxist is right about them being anti-Big Ag.

Which doesn’t make it a totally exemplary experience. Foraging is not for everyone and not for everywhere. David is an urban forager, and he eats stuff he finds in the city, which I find that very, very nervous-making. I think about how many cars and trucks go by, belching exhaust that the plants inhale. That can’t be good for you. And since foraging requires a fair amount of time effort, it is only for those with knowledge and time, or those who can pay for foraged goods. I’m not suggesting that that is inherently bad. But it does mean that foraged goods are getting commodified, and that does seem ironic, to say the least.

Foraging for My Dinner

A few days ago, on Bloomsday to be exact, Barbara and I went foraging in a meadow and adjacent woods in Carlisle with David Craft–an urban forager based in Cambridge–and a few other friends.  I like that we did it on Bloomsday, in the sense of it seeming fitting to spend the day walking and eating and walking and eating.  But mid-June is not an optimal time to forage in Massachusetts.  We ended our trek hungry, albeit with lots on interesting new flavors lingering on our tongues. Not all of them, to be honest, were good. There were definitely some foods that I can only imagine eating in desperation. Some, though, could be really awesome: milkweed was a BIG surprise.

But even though this was a new thing for us, we apparently jumped onto a pretty raucous bandwagon.  Look at all the cookbooks for foragers that have come out in the last three years!

Food For Free, by Richard Mabey, publ by Collins (240 pages); 40th anniversary REPUB of 1972 edition.

Whole Larder Love: Grow Gather Hunt Cook, by Rohan Anderson, publ. by powerHouse Books (240 pages)

The Joy of Foraging: Gary Lincoff’s Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying a World of Wild Food by Gary Lincoff, publ. by Quarry Books (192 pages)

Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, with 88 Recipes, Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux, with a foreword by Daniel Boulud, publ. by Clarkson Potter (224 pages)

Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, by Hank Shaw, publ. by Rodale (336 pages)

The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week) by Robin Mather, publ. by Ten Speed Press (272 pages)

The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes, by Connie Green and Sarah Scott, publ. by Studio Publ. (368 pages)

Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate (The Wild Food Adventure Series, Book 1) by John Callas, publ. by Gibbs Smith (416 pages)

Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, by Samuel Thayer, publ. by Forager’s Harvest Press (512 pages)

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn, publ. by Mountaineers Books (256 pages)

The Wild Vegan Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods by Steve Brill

That’s just the list of the ones available via amazon here in the US! And we’re LATE to the foraging craze.

Next time, I’ll add some thoughts on why this is so appealing to folks right now. Or at least some guesses.

In the meantime, I think I’ll make some nettle tea and dandelion greens.

Rocks, Snow, Gold

The snow is FINALLY melting here, and as it does, I’m learning something new about the yard–where the soil is especially shallow.  Like so much of this region, our yard has lots of ledge.  But since I am no longer in the habit of digging holes just to see how deep I can go (a practice my brothers and I found inexplicably fun as kids), I only knew the whereabouts of the ledgy bits that had to be blasted to lay water pipes and electrical lines when the house was being built.

Looking around now, though, I see areas where the snow melted quickly, and other spots still covered by the dirty, crusty last vestiges.  Some of the variation is due to location–there’s snow in the shadow of the house, for instance, and in the woods.  But in other spots, no above-ground explanations suffice.  So I went looking for insight as to why snow melts unevenly.

Here’s the best short answer I found on the web:

Snow ablation and melt

The rate of snow melt is dependent on energy availability, which is mostly in the form of radiation. Cold snowpacks have a negative energy balance, but warming causes the snowpack to become isothermal (0 degrees C) and additional energy results in positive energy balance and melt. Daily snow melt in forested areas is considerably less than melt in open areas, as forests protect the snow cover from solar radiation and wind. Canopy warming can increase longwave radiation, but the net effect of forest is reduction in melt. Rain falling on snowpack may accelerate its melt rate, but intense sunshine of late spring and summer is the principal melting energy source.

Most operational procedures for snow melt prediction rely on ambient air temperature as the index of the energy available for melt. The temperature index is usually used to characterize the level of the energy balance because it is superior to other simple methods for the full energy balance at the snow surface. The most common expression relating snow melt to the temperature index is:

M = Cm(Tair – Tmelt)

where M is the daily snow melt (mm/day), Cm is the melt rate factor (mm/oC per day), Tair is the daily ambient temperature (oC) and Tmelt is the threshold melt temperature (oC). The critical melt temperature is often set to 0 degrees C but can be optimized for a particular location.

Is that not awesome?!?

Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t really get at the reasons why snow on rock melts faster than snow on soil.  So, I’ve decided to settle on conjecture for now….and that conjecture is:  density.  Here’s my thinking:  soil heats up and cools down much more slowly than does air because it is so much denser than air.  So, one can say that soil holds heat “better” than air.  And rock is denser than soil, so by analogy it should hold heat even “better” than dirt.  I’m sure a geothermal engineer could give me a more precise explanation, but I don’t know any geothermal engineers.

So now, I’m imagining an earth art project based on these new-found speculations/insights.  We bury a message by writing in with rocks on a huge field, and then covering the whole field with another layer of soil and then grow some wildflowers on top.  Every spring, when the snow melts, the message would be visible for a day or two, as the snow above the rock-line writing melts more quickly than that in the rest of the field.  Ah, what to write, what to write?

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about rocks and temperature is because of the joyful snow melt.  But part of it is because of the far less joyful glacier melt.

paint-glacier-whiteAs glaciers recede, hosts of folks are trying to figure out what can be done to slow the process.  And one guy who came up with a possibly crazy/possibly genius proposal to slow glacial retreat in the Andes is Eduardo Gold.  He doesn’t call himself an artist or a scientist, but what he’s doing is of a piece with other artful remediation projects.  He’s painting the landscape.  Literally. With the help of some men from a nearby village–and funds from the World Bank through their “100 Ideas to Save the Planet” competition, in which he was one of the winners in 2009–he is whitewashing the rocks near the peak of Chalon Sombrero, in hopes of shifting the micro-climate and encouraging the glacier to expand.

Gold and his assistants are using an environmentally-kind “paint” made of lime, egg whites, and water, which they slosh over the rocks.  The premise is that by changing the reflectivity of the surface, the area will become a bit cooler, perhaps enough cooler to re-create the conditions that had been in place when the glaciers were larger.  And if that works, the glaciers will slowly begin to regrow.  Once there’s more glacier, its surface color will be the dominant one, and it will have the right reflectivity to self-maintain.

I hope it works.  It would be amazing if grassroots efforts to stave off climate disruption could generate positive effects.

From an entirely different perspective, Gold’s work also calls to mind some of the issues that Jena Duncan’s project on eating local food brought to the fore.  If I did what Eduardo Gold is doing, it would be an artwork.  If my brother who is an environmental engineer did it, it would be a slightly quirky project, but still all in a day’s work–and decidedly not art.  What is it when Gold does it?

And what does it mean that what an act “is” depends on who performs that act?

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.


It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Mapping the World

I just came across the website “worldmapper” and I love it.  Of course, I’m predisposed to love maps.  But this one makes me think of Edward Tufte and others who manage to pack a lot of information into a simple visual display.  At worldmapper, the information load is enhanced by comparisons between maps.

Here’s the “regular” map, the one indicating land area for each of the marked nations or territories:


But here are a few in which additional data is used, and represented by skewing the size of the territory to reflect that info.  In order, top to bottom, they represent nuclear power production, housing prices, personal computer ownership, and deaths of males aged 95-99.  These all loosely correlate with national wealth, I guess, which is in the fifth image in this set.






To be sure, the skews are not identical, but when you compare them to some of the others maps, their similarity to one another seems more striking.  Contrast them with this one of the total number of children:


Or this one of the number of deaths due to epilepsy:


In a way, these remind me of some of the maps in the series “Mappa Mundi,” by NYC artist, Kim Baranowski. Hers are more wry, but they similarly take the convention of a map and render it provocative through the addition of new data.  Check ‘em out!

Morning Star

Venus has been illuminating my mornings this past month.  I’m not crazy about being up in the wee-est of wee hours, but insomnia is certainly made more pleasant by watching the arc that planet traces.  From my pillow, I spy the first gleam at the horizon seemingly due east, and watch her rise and shift, upward and to the southeast, reaching high in the night sky before being obscured by dawn’s broader light.

Morning stars are no doubt an ordinary miracle to folks who pay better attention to the sky than I.  But when it comes to careful late-night looking, I’m a newbie.  My sense of the sky has been shaped almost entirely by scout camp and Greek mythology, rather than by astronomical knowledge.

Which may be why watching Venus has me so undone.  Night after night, from the safety of my bed, I feel myself hurtling east, racing toward the next day.  Venus shines like a brilliant nun or can, bright against the dark sea of sky, helping me gauge how far I’ve travelled.  Charting her progress, I know what I nearly always forget:  that I’m the one who is dashing, scrambling, hurtling through space, rotating 500 miles/hr most days, and spinning 3,000 mph more.  In the time it takes for Venus to disappear from view, I’ve traversed 5,000 miles or more.

And in that dizzying dash, I find I’ve also left behind one of the most hallowed myths of America.  No more “go west, young man,” for me.  Nope.  I understand now that the future’s not there.  It’s to the east, a faint orange glow pierced by Venus’s unequivocal promise:  tomorrow is nigh.

Summer Work

So if you’ve followed this blog since its inception, a scant seven months ago, then you know my husband and I had been planning to move on or about Solstice.  Well, we are finally in!  Not quite settled, but the ratio of cardboard boxes to visible floor is definitely heading in the right direction.


Far more importantly, though, I started the garden this spring at the new house.  Fortunately, the new house is just a mile and a half from the old house, so it wasn’t too hard to maintain during the ten weeks between first seeds and the actual move date.  And because this year has been so much better, weather-wise, than last year, I’ve been able to delight in the outdoor work and reap some delicious rewards for it.

Perhaps my favorite crop this year is the wheat. Red, hard, winter.  I’ve never had enough space to grow things like wheat before, but I’ve wanted to be part of a grow-out for a while, so this move was the perfect opportunity.  And it’s beautiful!

Although the wheat still has a ways to go before it becomes the base of bread, a lot of the veggies are harvestable right now, including (at last!) the peas. And we have a ton.  Last January, I ordered golden pea pods and two kinds of shelling peas.  Okay, so I ordered a third kind — a sweet heirloom called Tom Thumb that you grow in pots indoors — but it turns out that cats like those pea shoots, and so we won’t be having any this year. Perhaps in some psychic anticipation of my Tom Thumb debacle-to-come, one of the seed companies kindly sent me several experimental seed varieties, including one of peas.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist planting an experimental mystery.  “Experimental pea 712″ has turned out to be the most tendril-dense variety I’ve ever grown.  Maybe that I’ve ever seen.  And the other varieties did well this year, too, so for the next few weeks, we’ll be devising sundry ways to sneak peas into every meal.


DSC_0050-e1279397583459-200x300What I’m really struck by today, though, is that much of the work I’ll need to do this week is hot & steamy, not because of the mid-summer mugginess, but rather because it is getting food ready for winter.  Peas may be the platonic ideal of a summer food, but since we have so many and since they are a delight in winter, I’ll be spending some time in the next week steaming and blanching them.   Just as I perused catalogs last January, and dreamt of summer, this week I’ll blanch the peas, so that come winter, we’ll be able to eat them and taste summer.  This time-shifting regarding summer and winter reminds me of a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which one of the many narrator’s describes being out of synch with her environment — “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” (l. 18).

But here’s the thing:  I definitely don’t feel out of synch.  To the contrary, I’m beginning to think that in order to be rooted in this place, tied to the life of the plants that surround us, I need to shift in time just as often as I need to resist the impulse to do so.  I remember learning that one hemisphere of the brain is responsible for enabling you to dwell in the moment, the other to anticipate and to recall.  For a while, I had assumed that being really grounded, being truly in time, meant strictly being in the moment, and that maybe my meditating task was to let an entire hemisphere grow quiet.  Now, though, I am thinking that the peas are telling me something quite different:  that the oscillation between being in the moment and being sensible of the work that needs to be done for another moment is not simply a regrettable by-product of our culture’s pesky commitment to post-industrial capitalism.  Rather, it’s basic — a holdover of our shift to agrarianism, and likely more basic than that — a nascent capacity in our forebears that was reinforced every time someone didn’t have to struggle to secure a good dinner.

More Firefly Begetting

My good friend Abigail just got back from family vacation, and wanted to let me know about a song she heard a LOT in the car that week. Yup, ’tis another creative work about fireflies to add to the growing list, this one by Owl City, & called “Fireflies.”

Thanks so much Abi, and happy 8th birthday!!