Friday, April 29, 2011

Welcome Foraging Season 2011

Foraging has begun in earnest for calendar year 2011. Today on the way home from trout fishing, I stopped by a favorite sandy streamside and found a host of wild edibles.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads had only just begun to erupt, but I picked enough for a wee taste. Blunt-leaved dock was ripe for the picking, as was Japanese knotweed and wild oats.

While taking photos of the plants and munching on peeled stalks of wild oats, I mulled over one of the great ironies of springtime foraging. This is what many of us wait for all winter and even as spring draws near, it seems to remain at arm’s length. The plants that we wait so patiently for seem so very far away.

And then it happens, seemingly overnight (and perhaps it does happen overnight). Everything pops up and given the short window of opportunity for so many of the wild edible plants, the whole thing seems completely overwhelming.

Now that dandelions are coming into prime, I know that I’ll have at most, two more weeks to pick and pressure-can my next winter’s supply, a daunting task. But when Jack Frost taps on my window and snowdrifts pile up to knee height, those home-canned dandelions are mighty welcome.

Ditto for fiddleheads. And the same for all the rest. I ask myself if I need to make Japanese knotweed chutney this year…there are five or six half-pints left from last year, and it keeps for several years without the slightest problem.

So here we are at the top of the hour, so to speak. The next three weeks are critical for those who like to preserve their wild edibles. And even for those who simply relish a fresh meal of their favorite wild treats, the woods, fields, streamsides, vacant lots, fallow garden beds and wetlands call. The time has arrived to partake of nature’s free harvest. Welcome to foraging season, 2011.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Snow For May 1

Every year, it’s a question whether or not snow will linger along my driveway on the first day of May. Two weeks ago, I would have bet almost anything that yes, I’ll have snow.

But now I’m not so sure. Constant, driving rain has had more of a bearing on my disappearing snowpack than has the temperature. But now, with daytime temps in the 50’s and sometimes the 60’s, that, too, has worked its way.

Nonetheless, a fairly deep patch of snow remains on one shaded corner of my land. And with only three days to go, I’m hedging my bets. I really don’t know how long it will last. But if I were forced to take a stand, I would say that yes, there will be at least a trace of snow on May 1. You'll just have to stay tuned to find out which way this goes.

As much as it pleases me to see the land at last snow-free, the lack of snow presents one small problem. I do a bit of fishing each day…a stream down the road makes it easy to try my luck regularly. And on the way, I just stop halfway down my driveway and half-fill a small ice chest with snow. This keeps any trout I might catch fresh as can be.

So now it’s back to making ice cubes.

I realize all this sounds very un-exciting. But to me, it’s a big deal. Everything is relative and all these little, seasonal highlights combine to make life interesting. At least life in the slow lane, in Waldo, Maine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Almost Here

One old-time Mainer of my acquaintance had a stock answer to any question that began with, “Can I?” He would say in a rough, drawn-out voice, “Ya can if ya know what you’re doin’.”

Well, that generic retort comes to mind now when people ask me if they can find any number of wild, springtime edible plants. To paraphrase the above-mentioned character, I will say that yes, you can, if you know where to look.

Depending upon where you live in Maine, wild plants may or may not be available. In Mid-Coast Maine, most everything is still a tad too small, miniature versions of what is to come.

For instance, I found some curled dock today. But the entire plant would easily fit in my palm with my fist clenched. Soon, though, soon.

Along those lines, while driving along today, I saw some bloodroot in bloom. These pretty white springtime wildflowers precede ostrich fern fiddleheads and other great wild edibles by only a short time, perhaps one week. In fact, I would guess that early spots, particularly south-facing locations, would offer enough ripe fiddleheads for at least a scant meal.

So the time has almost, but not quite, arrived. Soon, it will all happen and to my mind, far too quickly. Why does nature pack everything into such a compact time span? I simply don’t know. I do know that things I would give an eyetooth for in February are wildly abundant in spring, but only for a short time.

The good news is, as one plant recedes, another takes its place. So from now until the first killing frost of fall, we have an endless succession of interesting, useful, healthful and tasty wild plants to deal with. That’s pretty neat, hey?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trout, Dandelions and Groundnuts

Two nights ago I decided to dig a few of the young dandelions that I had eyed for so long. They were small, tender and sweet and other than nibbling on some raw orpine, were the first wild vegetables of the season to grace my table.

My friend Ken Allen shared a thought with me regarding the slow onset of spring. Ken, a year my senior, does not remember an April this cold…ever. Neither do I. We had some real cold Aprils back in the 1970s, but not this cold. Today is April 23 and National Weather Service predicts scattered snow showers this morning.

But those little dandelions served to give me a taste of things to come. Better yet, I went trout fishing yesterday and in addition to catching three brook trout and one brown trout, was able to half-fill my basket-style creel with groundnuts.

So while most people have baked ham for Easter dinner, I look forward to trout, dandelions and groundnuts.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Phoebes On Ice

For a noontime break from writing, I visited a local trout pond. A slight mist made me glad I had brought a raincoat. A breeze wicked away the heat from my hands, making them so cold that I immediately lost most of the feeling, making it difficult to cast.

In front of me and a bit to the side, a sheet of ice lingered, refusing to melt despite it’s having overstayed its welcome. The trout refused to bite, no surprise there. But on the water, I saw what looked like little, floating insects. This pond has an early midge (a kind of teeny, aquatic fly) hatch and these looked like midges.

Even more ironic, I saw two phoebes, tails bobbing frantically, out on the ice, picking up something. Was it midges, blown by the wind? I don’t know, but since phoebes are flycatchers, they were surely taking some kind of insects. But to see the little birds working a sheet of ice seemed so out of place.

Off toward the center of the pond, a larger bird swam about. A loon. The loons are back, at least here in Mid-Coast Maine.

I finally gave in to the cold, packed my gear in the trunk and drove home.

As miserable and uncomfortably cold as it is, the midges, the phoebes and the loon assure me that better times are surely coming.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Patriot's Day Thoughts

Monday, April 18, and every government office in Maine is closed. Also, school kids are out in force, rather than being in class where, it would seem, they belong. This puzzles me. My calendar indicates no holiday on this date.

My only thought on this is that tomorrow, April 19, is Patriot’s Day. And I bet that the government has made a three-day weekend out of it for their employees, one of the “Monday” holidays.

This irritates me to no end. Certainly, some “made-up” holidays can, without a thought, be changed from one date to another. But to change the date for observing Patriot’s Day seems one step too far.

Patriot’s Day, as all who read this blog certainly know, marks the beginning of hostilities between the United States and England, the actual bullet-and-blood inception of the American Revolution. It happened in Lexington Massachusetts. American patriots knew that the British were going to move, but they were not certain when or exactly how or where.

I shall offer a re-hash of this event in the words of Robert Lawton, a well-known writer who tackled patriotic themes in the mid-20th century. Lawton writes, in his “Watchwords Of Liberty,” 1943:

“On Lexington Common a group of hastily gathered militiamen stood uneasy in the gray chill of an April dawn. Their appearance was not very military, there were only a few attempts at uniforms. Some were old men, some were youths, all bore arms of some sort.
“There had been the pounding of hoofs in the night, the clatter of windows, the slamming of doors, Paul Revere’s hoarse shout, “The British are coming!’

“There had been hurried dressings, sudden candlelight, fires poked up, muskets, fowling pieces and powder horns snatched from their pegs, old swords strapped on. There had been stumbling trots down paths and lanes, across fields, up the highways, dogs yapping gaily at the prospect of an unexpected hunt, and over all the churchbells far and near, clamoring a wild alarm.

“Now, as they waited, many a breath must have shortened, many eyes turned warily toward the Boston Road. Old Indian fighters looked to the priming of their muskets, cautioned the youngsters, while newmade officers strove to straighten the crooked ranks.”

“Then suddenly it came; the rhythmic, thudding march of three full companies of British Grenadiers, the jingle of harness, the rattling of equipment. Down the road they flowed: scarlet coats, towering shakos, glittering brass, pipe-clayed belts. Across the common they swept, formed ranks, halted.

“Up to the Patriot line trotted handsome young Major Pitcairn. “Disperse ye rebels,” he shouted, “throw down your arms and disperse.”

“Small wonder if, at this display of British might and authority, there was an uneasy stir among the Minutemen.”

“Then rose the sturdy voice of Captain John Parker. “Stand your ground!” he said. “Don’t fire unless fired upon! But if they want to have a war, let it begin here!” And there it began.”

“None knows who fired first, but there were scattered shots – then from the scarlet-clad ranks a sheet of flame, a roar, and a billowing cloud of black smoke. Almost before the smoke had cleared the stolid British were again in column, clumping down the road to Concord; the Patriots who still lived had melted away behind walls and buildings.

“the rising sun shone redly on eight dead men, nine wounded – and a continent at war.”

Those words stir me.

But did you know that April 1775, was the warmest April on record? True enough. As the fighting progressed, Americans pursued the now-retreating British down the Concord Road, back to Boston. And they did so in record heat. Leaves on deciduous trees had opened. It’s for sure that the Americans had long-since began to harvest fiddleheads and other wild foods.

So that’s Patriot’s Day. A day that other states don’t even bother to note. And a day for people to take a long weekend in Maine and Massachusetts (we were one colony in 1775). But how many of us take time to ponder the true meaning of this day? How many care?

I do. Do you?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Bear

A lady in my church makes it a point each week to describe all her wildlife sightings. Usually, she contains this to birds and sometimes raccoons or skunks. But today was bear day.

A bear, or more likely, a number of bears, live near her. She has visiting bears each fall, not an unexpected thing for someone far out in the country. But a springtime bear, that’s a different story.

In spring, about this time in Southern and Mid-Coast Maine, black bears break hibernation and awaken to an in-between time where plant food is scarce. Bears are omnivores and relish both meat and vegetable matter.

Anyway, my friend’s visitor made off with a suet feeder. I told her she should be thankful that that was all the bear did. Imagine going six months without anything to eat. That’s what bears do.

It’s only in recent years that wildlife biologists have realized the full extent of bear predation upon newly-born whitetailed deer. A little fawn makes a satisfying meal for a hungry bear.

Also, bears are pretty ugly at this time, quite understandable, given their situation.

When a month or so has passed, the bears should have satiated their ravenous hunger. But make no mistake. Black bears not only eat to live, but also live to eat. There is no time during their above-ground season that they don’t have food on their mind. But in spring, oh, bears will seek anything edible that isn’t tied down…and even things that are tied down are in grave jeapordy.

I’m anxious to attend church next week, so that I can hear the continuing saga of my friend Jean and her nuisance bears. And make no mistake, there will be a next time. Bears are like that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

May Day

I guess it’s in my blood…or in the genes, anyway. The first day of May carries some significance to me.

In earlier times, residents of the British Isles noted the first day of May with reveling and celebrations. This tradition carried over to the New World and people in Maritime Canada and Maine held their May Day celebrations.

Old-time Maine folks will recall hanging May baskets on doors and then knocking. When the object of their affection saw the basket, that person would pursue the one who hung the basket. The end of this process culminated in a kiss.

Another old-fashioned pastime on May 1 involved hunting for Mayflowers. These are the tubular, sweet-scented blooms of trailing arbutus. Often hidden beneath fallen leaves from the previous fall, Mayflowers are not always easy to find. The hunt, then, carried a certain degree of excitement, anticipation and finally, the eventual reward upon locating blooming arbutus.

People also erected Maypoles. These were wrapped in colorful streamers. Dancing around the Maypole was a traditional part of our May Day celebration.

I am fortunate enough to have in my possession, a record of Music Of The Scottish Court, 1550-1625. The title tune on this classic recording is “O Lusty May.” Here is a stanza from that venerable tune, presented in modern English rather than the original King James style:

“Of all the months of the year
To mirthful May there is no peer
Her glistening garments are so gay
You lovers all make merry cheer”

While I don’t know anyone today who could give two hoots about May Day, I continue to celebrate in my own fashion. To that end, I play my tabor and pipe. This is an ancient instrument, very much present in medieval courts as well as in rural towns and villages throughout England Scotland and also on the Continent. The combination figured prominently into May Day celebrations.

The tabor is a drum, held by slinging a rope over the left wrist. The pipe is a fipple-style flute, played with the left hand. The right hand beats a lively tempo on the drum. It’s like walking, chewing gum and rubbing your head and belly at once. But I can do it. Practice makes perfect, don’t you know?

I wish I had a way of playing my tabor and pipe for you. Perhaps some day, technology will allow me to do so.

Anyway, no matter the weather, I intend, as I always do, to go outside, take in nature and walk about, playing May Day tunes on my tabor and pipe.

Such lovely little traditions as these make life worth living. I find it sad that we drift further and further from such things.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Typical Spring Day In Waldo, Maine

Driving down my driveway yesterday, I was met with a most impressive sight. A bird, about the size of a small chicken, was strutting its stuff. It was a male ruffed grouse and the ruff, a collar of black feathers around its neck, was puffed out like something royalty would wear in Elizabethan England.

Besides the ruff, its tail was held on a vertical, completely fanned out. Thus attired, the little bird looked for all the world like a strutting turkey, only of a much smaller size.

I watched for a while and finally, the magnificent little critter walked off into the woods. Peace be with you, Mr. Grouse, and may you sire lots of young ones.

But that wasn’t all that happened yesterday. Out by the roadside wetland, I was amazed to hear a chorus of wood frogs in midday. A neighbor said that she heard spring peepers the other night, but I’ll wait and see, or hear, for myself. I think it’s a bit too cold for peepers.

Today, while passing a farm on the upper end of my road, a huge swarm of birds zipped along in front of me, undulating and twisting as one. These were barn swallows and they, too, seem a bit early.

And finally, upon reaching my driveway, a much-anticipated sight met my eyes. The grader has come. Now the worst road in Maine will be, at least for a few weeks (the grader man never digs the potholes completely out and so they quickly re-form), passable to all motor vehicles.

And that is a typical spring day in Waldo, Maine.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Foraging Saves The Day

For me, foraging is far more than a healthful and interesting hobby. At times, my physical well-being depends upon foraged foods.

I’m a forager and also a fisherman. I forage for food and for fun. I fish for food and fun. In both instances, notice that food comes first. A more fitting label for me might include the term “hunter-gatherer,” or perhaps the title that Euell Gibbons used so frequently, “neo-primitive forager.”

Let me cite an example of why, for me, foraging is much more than just a fun exercise in the outdoors. It looks as though I might need to empty my bank account and perhaps even borrow money to pay my income taxes. That will put me in the red for at lest several weeks. In the meantime, my frozen and canned food from last season is running low.

Fortunately, fish are biting and I can count upon that with some degree of regularity. Sure, the wild fish that I catch and cook myself are great, better than the farm-raised product we might buy in the store. But to tell the truth, I probably couldn’t afford to buy the store-bought kind if I wanted it. I do enjoy the Maine-raised Atlantic salmon, too, but it is so very expensive.

And ditto for vegetables. Fresh vegetables are priced way too high for me. But now, dandelions, evening primrose and several other wild greens are coming into season and they can and shall complement my fresh-caught fish.

I saw some groundnuts (potato substitute) along the riverside the other day, but getting to them was a formidable challenge. So I must wait for the water to recede a bit before harvesting my prize. When that happens, I’ll take photos and post them here, of course.

But back to foraging as a way of life. Simply put, I could not afford not to forage. And yes, my foraged food is of higher quality than commercially produced. In fact, most of what I gather cannot be bought…it must be picked, fresh, from nature.

So being a forager by dint of necessity has its ups and downs. For me, I couldn’t get by without foraged foods. And that, I think, is probably a good thing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Live And Learn

So near and yet so far. That’s how I feel about the upcoming foraging season. Here in Mid-Coast Maine, wild plants are still largely too small to harvest or they haven’t yet grown above ground.

Being anxious to go out and pick something, anything, I consulted various guidebooks and noted two wild plants that I had not yet tried. Both are available right now.

First, I tried an infusion (tea) of northern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis. One author described this as “evergreen-tasting.” So I picked a slight handful of leaves, chopped them up, placed them in a teacup and added boiling water. I let the stuff steep for about 10 minutes and then drained off the tea into a fresh cup.

So with a degree of excitement, I took my first swig. YEKKK! It was awful. The guy who said it was evergreen-tasting probably never tried it, or else he, too, would agree with me that northern white cedar tea tastes like what skunk spray smells like…perhaps even worse.

Next, I read that coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, flowers and stems can be eaten fresh or cooked and are supposed to have a pleasant flavor. So I headed out back to give it a try. It took only a short while before a pronounced flavor manifested itself. Unfortunately, this, too, was a bad, bad flavor, something to avoid. The nasty taste lingered far too long on my unsuspecting palate.

I realize that taste is subjective. But even so, it seems difficult for me to comprehend how anyone could confuse “pleasant” and “terrible.” But people do.

Live and learn, I guess, is my motto for today.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Springtime Leaps Forward

Nature has gone into high gear now as springtime advances by quantum jumps. It seems that each day brings a new “first of the season” sighting of some plant or animal. And today was, for me, a biggie.

The first thing I saw this morning upon looking out my front door was a mourning cloak butterfly. After hop merchants, these are the earliest butterflies to emerge. Like hop merchants, mourning cloaks (so called because their black wings, trimmed with pale crème, resemble the cloaks worn by mourners of a past era) hibernate in the forest litter, thus are able to resume their adult life in early spring.

Mourning cloak butterflies don’t fly very well and are, in my opinion, somewhat clumsy. It would seem that such a trait would make them easy prey for birds and other predators. But mourning cloaks have a defense, of sorts, that being the element of surprise. When alarmed, a mourning cloak emits a snapping sound, loud enough to startle a would-be predator. Interesting insects, these.

Later on this afternoon, again at my front door, an energetic little, gray bird lit on a tree branch. It immediately began pumping its tail up and down. Without thinking, I immediately said, “phoebe.”

Phoebes are insect eaters, taking their prey on the fly. This tells me that the extreme cold has ended, since flying insects must have fairly mild temperatures. As my friend Ken Allen would say, “Mrs. Phoebe didn’t raise no fool,” meaning that phoebes seldom make life-threatening decisions regarding when to head back north.

Finally, the new shoots of common daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, are big enough to harvest. I couldn’t find much else to mix with them for a wild salad, so I just ate a few as is, in order to get a taste of the new season.

So stay tuned to this blog, because as the season progresses, I will tell, and show you which edible wild plants are in season. We can share in the bounty, as it were. And isn’t that a good thing?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three Springtime Firsts

After leaving my eye doctor’s office in Bucksport, I decided to go home to Waldo via the back roads. While driving along an open area in the Town of Prospect, a welcome sight met my eyes…a long swath of brilliant yellow coltsfoot. These were so bright that they almost glowed.

A little later, further on down the same road, a pussy willow shrub caught my attention. The fuzzy, gray catkins had appeared, another sure sign of spring.

Then, while trout fishing on a little freestone stream, I saw something slide into the water as I approached a particularly “trouty” looking pool. It was a common garter snake. This amazed me, first to see a snake at all right now, especially in the bottom of a cold, snow-filled valley. And second, that the snake took to the icy-cold water in order to escape me. It would seem that a cold-blooded animal would immediately become paralyzed upon plunging in to near-freezing water.

I tried to help the little critter out of the stream by probing with the tip of my fishing rod, but it escaped me. Figuring that if it had enough energy to evade my well-intended efforts, it probably had sufficient steam left to crawl back out of the water after I left, which I did immediately.

These three events have one thing in common. They are all “firsts” for the new season. As such, they deserve to be noted down for posterity, either on a calendar or in a notebook or journal.

So spring has really arrived and from now on, things will only get better. Keep your eyes and ears open and prepare to witness nature at its best.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Forcing Birch, Rescued Crocus

Winter lingers in the little valley where my cottage sits. Snow lies thick in the woods, far too deep for casual walking. My location has the distinction of being one of the last places for snow to melt. I have had remnant patches of the white stuff well into late May.

So how do I find spring? What to do to find some kind of seasonal cheer?

Well, for one thing, forcing white birch branchlets gives me a good foretaste of what’s to come. Two weeks ago, I went out in the morning and walking on the hard-frozen snow crust, cut a handful of epicormic (waterspouts) branchlets from a little birch just off the trail.

These were placed in a small vase, watered and the vase set atop my refrigerator. And now, the branchlets are covered with those delightful, lime-green leaves that birch wear so proudly in spring.

Anyone can force the tender, green leaves of spring. You needn’t just use birch branchlets, either. Alders lend themselves to forcing, as do many others, including willow. This has become an annual ritual for me and the same may well become the case with others who try it.

Next, flower and garden shows do much to make me think spring. In fact, I’ll be speaking and signing books at the Manchester Home And Garden Show slated for this Saturday, April 9, at 11 a.m. at the Augusta Civic Center. This sounds like a fun time for all and I’m certain that at the very least, it will put me in a “spring” frame of mind.

Here’s a funny one. Just before last Friday’s snowstorm, I decided to try and save my just-beginning-to-bloom bed of crocus by placing a blue tarp over it. I mentioned this in a previous blog. Today I removed the tarp and what a wonderful sight greeted me. The crocus were mostly all now in full bloom, a beautiful sight, especially against a background of unwelcome snow. It worked! Sometimes we do win, little victories but victories nonetheless.

In a little over two weeks, I suspect that at least a few wild plants will become available. Meanwhile, patience is paramount.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Opening Day 2011

My dream just before waking up on April 1 was that the snowstorm had gone out to sea. Reality, of course, was far different. Nonetheless, my pal Tony Wieman and I decided to go out trout fishing anyway, since there was at that time only about one inch or less of snow on the ground.

We first visited the spot where we always go every opening day. This is in a kind of chasm and the only way to reach the water is to climb down a steep, rocky bank. But today, the rocks were slippery and it was probably foolish of us to attempt the descent. We did it anyway and made it to the bottom unscathed.

But the fish didn’t bite and soon, we agreed to go to the next stream on our opening day list. Snow began falling harder and now several inches hung heavy on trees and shrubs. Still, we proceeded down the brook, this one much easier to negotiate.

And fortune smiled on us. The little brook was filled with fish and we caught all we wanted, only stopping when the snow became even more difficult to contend with. It was okay by me, too, since my fingers were so wet and cold that they had lost all flexibility. And our pants legs were soaked on account of walking through snow-covered brush. In other words we were miserable. But happy.

It was strange to be on this stream on April 1 and not have the opportunity to check out what wild plants had sprung up. Usually, false hellebore would have poked its pointy, tightly packed head out of the fertile, streamside ground. Buttercups, too, at least the foliage, would be in evidence. And usually, an early-arriving woodcock would flush from the place where early woodcock always find earthworms to eat.

But not today. The trout were there and so were we. But no woodcock, no plants, just cold, wind and a lot of heavy snow.

So that was opening day 2011. I’ve seen them as bad and also, far better. It makes little difference, though. These are the wayside marks for nature’s calendar and that’s the calendar I pay most attention to.