Friday, 24 July 2015

Foraging is

both hunting and gathering.

Some plants throw themselves at us: "pick me, pick me!". Some fall at our feet, literally, like the aspen. Some hide really well in the wild - I'm looking at you, nettle - and some become rampant in the garden, offering far more than we can use - I'm looking at you again, nettle.

Some require a blood sacrifice - blackberries. Actually, since it's a good year for deer flies, horse flies and mosquitoes, all the plants are requiring a blood sacrifice. It's all right though. I may hate those bastard bugs but it's fair enough; I get something, and the eco-system gets something back.

Foraging comes so naturally to me that it wasn't until I began to teach it and to gather plants medicines for more than just my own use that I stood back and looked at it as others might see it. It's tricky!

That mass of homogeneous green? The forager has to see every shade of green distinct from every other. We have to sharpen our focus to see leaf structure. To see minute differences in texture from one plant to the next we must rely on the play of the light on microscopic hairs - from 10 ft away. We smell the breeze and learn to discern the individual fragrances. When we search for a low growing plant, sometimes we have to look up to the tree canopy to find what we're seeking on the ground. When we seek something on the branches, sometimes we look to the ground first, checking for tiny somethings windblown off the trees.

Much of what we do is inexplicable. I listen for grapes, for instance. No one but another forager - or someone with a forager's heart - would understand that. Sometimes we'll find a magnificent specimen or stand of a plant of great value and leave it there. Even when we want it or need it, something tells us "not that one". There are blessings that come when we leave something alone. I can't explain those either.

There are those who would tell you to leave offerings when you harvest - that's silliness and sometimes downright wrong. The plants don't want your tobacco or your crystals. Offer your blessing, let your heart sing with them in the sun and be with them, creature to creature. Respect is their due, not new-age derivative nonsense.

If there is a patron "saint" involved in foraging, it is that old trickster, Coyote. Perfect, unblemished hawthorn berries can be riddled with worms, as can perfect plums. Drive for miles searching high and low for something then find it growing in the tall grasses of your own property in abundance - but long past its picking stage.

Foraging may be simple enough, but that don't make it easy.

If you live in farm country, you better know your crop rotations. Is that corn or soy? Don't pick anywhere near it, no matter how healthy the St John'swort appears. (It's almost as though St. Johnswort thrives on glysophate, it does so well next to corn!). Look closely at the field of barley. Does it have weeds in the field? Fine, you can pick here. No weeds in the field? No weeds means they did a chemical burn down before planting. No picking there either.

For years and years one of my best foraging zones was on a plateau on the island. A few cattle kept near the old farm house, hives of honey bees and fields left to their own devices as far as the eye could see. Red clover, asters, goldenrod, St John'swort, wild plums, nannyberries, hawthorn, coyote bones - you name it, I've gathered it from there. I knew it couldn't last, so no surprise that last fall we found it ploughed. But that was okay, I've learned my crop rotations and as I expected its sown with oats. They don't spray oats here, not at all, so we're good. For now. Next year? I don't know. Sometimes a farmer will do oats year after year. I hope this is one of those farmers.

It takes two of us to forage properly. Paul drives and I scout. Right now, all the yellow flowers are blooming together, but I can spot the difference in the shades of yellow at 70km/hr and the flash of raspberries at 80. Usually he goes much slower. Then when we stop I wander on my own.

Today was a St John'swort day. We went past an awful lot of it before stopping on Killoran road near the pretty little stream. It was near there, away from any farms, at the edge of the forest that I cut my first St J. of the season. What a great moment. I'd been playing at the edge of the water, watching bullfrog tadpoles, minnows and really trippy dragon or maybe damselflies. The mood was mellow. The sun was almost at its zenith and the yellow flowers stained my fingers the perfect shade of purple/red. The next stop was the edge of an oat field, again, they were perfect. Not much more than an hour later, though, the sun now just past the zenith, we stopped at another "perfect" stand and the stain test showed them just not quite as potent as I like them, so I said thankyou anyway and left them be.

Although I brought home what looked like a generous bunch, by the time they're garbled (de-bugged and chopped) it makes barely a jam jar's worth of tincture so I'll be back at it for the next few days, weather permitting.With the sun's angle just right. Away from corn and soy fields.

Simple, but not easy.

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