Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Storm Fizzles

Hurry up and shovel that snow befoe it all melts. The weekend snowstorm fell far short of what meteorologists had predicted. This was the snowy equivalent of our recent hurricane, the one that got continual hype on radio, newspaper and television but upon reaching Maine, hardly qualified as a tropical storm.

Like everyone else, I fell prey to the pre-“blizzard” mania and spent two days hauling firewood, putting machinery under cover and otherwise battening down the hatches. In Brooks, Maine, we even cancelled church services in anticipation of what the news media now calls a “severe weather event.”

I think that from now on, I shall go on my gut feeling and pay no mind to what weather prognosticators say. In fact, I did give my native intuition some head this time. Instead of putting the frame and winter cover on my boat, I decided that no matter what, the snow would eventually melt and I could yet get some boating (read “fishing”) in this fall.

So with temps predicted (here we go again with those predictions) to hover in the 50’s this coming week, it appears that the October snowstorm will dissipate as quickly as it arrived. And those of us who yearn for that last meal of dandelions or perhaps a shot of homemade bitters (ground ivy makes a great bitter tea, useful for toning up the digestive system) have some time left yet.

On to another topic. I have two wild plant seminars pending. Specific information on both is still forthcoming, but I can at least give dates and places. The first is for Long Branch School in Bowdoinham on February 4. There, I plan on showing a DVD presentation on wild plants and also, talking about the value of learning to recognize plants at different times of the year. Even in winter, we can easily spot the dead stalks and stems of so many valuable plants. This enables us to return in spring and reap the bounty.

For more info on Long Branch School visit

Next, I will give a similar presentation at Merryspring in Camden on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

As soon as more specifics become available, I’ll be sure to post them here. In the meantime, don’t believe everything you hear from the weather forecasters. They are about as reliable as our weather. And you know what they say about that: “If you don’t like the Maine weather, just wait a minute.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Late-Season Foraging

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The woodstove makes comfortable heat now, as long as it only feeds on lightweight wood such as poplar and birch. A big plus in favor of running a stove this early is that it also affords free hot water for washing dishes. A kettle of water simmering on the stovetop helps canny homeowners to cut down on energy costs.

And burning wood reminds me that the time draws near for us to get last-minute chores done outside and if any garden vegetables remain, to either freeze or can them. This week was my week to pressure can the last of my cabbages and carrots. I’ve enough canned vegetables now to last for at least two months if everything else went south. A good feeling it is, to know that my needs are thus supplied.

Open-water fishing has become a hit-or-miss proposition. Cold water and a change in fish habits make finding such usually cooperative panfish such as white perch and black crappies problematic at best. Some trout fishing still remains in selected waters. Last week, I fished several places in the Moosehead Region and also, went on an extended bird-hunting trip with my buddy Bob Lawrence of Lawrence’s Lakeside Cabins in Rockwood.

Bob took me around to places in the North Country that I had never seen, long, winding roads that opened to stunning vistas of Moosehead Lake, Seboomook Lake and beyond. One road led up the steep face of a small mountain. The place is called “The Stairway To Heaven,” and for good reason. The view was breathtaking.

Returning home with several partridge and a brace of hefty brook trout, it seemed to me that if winter hit us early it would make little difference. I had already had my outdoor fun.

Foraging for green plants has essentially ended, since a killing frost has long since killed most herbaceous perennials. Dandelions remain, however, and it may surprise some people to learn that after being hit with two or three frosts, the usually bitter plants become sweet again, the same as in springtime. So if the mood strikes, do try and get out and find some dandelions for a late-season, wild treat.

Certain apple trees hold their fruit, especially the wild trees found on long-vacant farmland. While it’s usually impossible to figure out the pedigree of these apples, the fact remains that many of them are winter types, the kind that attain their highest degree of sweetness only after a long stretch of cold weather. Some of these can even accept freezing with little or no obvious damage.

Wild root crops, if you can find them, remain available right up until snow covers the ground, making digging for them difficult if not impossible. Groundnuts and Jerusalem artichokes taste sweet now and it makes sense to go out and gather some of these too. Both keep well in the refrigerator, so take home as many as you care to harvest. You won’t hurt next year’s crop, either. Instead, taking a good portion of these tubers amounts to much-needed cultivation. Next year will see more and bigger tubers.

So get out while the getting is good. Do those last-minute chores and make sure to look around for some end-of-the-year wild edible plants. It’s a long time until next spring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Mighty Karnac Knows

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Today is Tuesday, October 11, 2011. And without hearing or seeing a weather report, I would know without a doubt that within 24 hours or so, heavy rain will fall on Waldo, Maine.

I’ll explain by citing the late Johnny Carson’s character, “The Mighty Karnac.” Karnac would swipe a sealed envelope across his forehead and then come forth with the answer. After this, Karnac would open the envelope and read the question.

So let’s say that I am playing Karnac. I swipe the envelope across my head and exclaim, “Because they are grading the road.” I open the envelope and read the question. “How do you know it’s going to rain?”

Talk around town is that the road commissioner keeps a tight watch on the long-range forecast. Then when he is assured of impending rain, he grades the gravel roads. Within days, the roads are washed out and residents are compelled to drive on roads that are no better and sometimes far worse than before the grading took place.

Country life has its ups and downs and this is surely a big “down.” But other things, good things, make up for human ineptitude and neglect.

For instance, the weather up until now (yes, rain is surely coming) has been spectacular. Warm temperatures coupled with the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn leaves have combined to make life off the beaten path a physical and spiritual pleasure.

Also, while a few wild plants remain for dedicated foragers to harvest, my attention has lately focused upon picking and preserving vegetables from my garden. Winter squash, picked the day before a killing frost, must sit outside in the sun in order to harden off. At night, these go back inside.

Carrot tops remain green, so I allow them to linger in the ground. When the tops begin to die back, I’ll pull the roots and then pressure can them for winter use.

Swiss chard and kale continue to produce leafy greens and these I accept with much gratitude.

It was with sad farewell that I picked and later ate the last of my summer squash, zucchini and yellow straightnecks. I enjoy these so much that throughout the season, at every opportunity, I sliced and partially fried pounds of squash. Then I placed the rounds on a baking sheet and put that in the freezer. When completely frozen, the partially-cooked squash went into a freezer bag.

Later in winter, I am able to remove just the exact amount of squash for a meal, no more no less. These go from the freezer to the frying pan where they are cooked to perfection in olive or canola oil.

Sometimes I’ll get a hankering for fish and to that end, I have bags and bags of frozen white perch and black crappie fillets. These, too, taste nearly as good as when fresh because of having been cared for properly from the time they were taken from the water.

So my cupboard abounds not only with wild plants but also homegrown vegetables and also fish from local lakes, ponds and streams. I’m fortunate indeed.

To end, let me say that I hope everyone has enjoyed this glorious warm and sunny fall season as much as I have. Take it in now because soon, the heavy rain will fall. I know that because today, they graded the road.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Wild Mushroom Weekend

Wild mushrooms have taken center stage as of late. These delightful fungi appeared in great numbers over a long period of time, thanks no doubt, to our recent weather pattern of rain-dry-rain-dry.

My weekend was spent in Brunswick, Maine, doing book signings and giving talks on foraging. And because they now appear in such numbers, my seminars concentrated primarily upon wild mushrooms. And, of course, people have a great and growing interest in this topic.

Still, mushrooms are where you find them and when someone asks me to come to their place and identify the wild mushrooms there, I always say that I cannot guarantee finding one, single mushroom.

So it was to my great pleasure when Emily Equerin, a journalist from The Forecaster, asked me to take time between seminars and accompany her on a mushroom walk in some nearby woods.

We were counting minutes, since I needed to be back in town at a certain time for my next seminar. Nonetheless, we were less than 15 minutes into our walk when I saw some familiar orange mushrooms in the distance. These were chanterelles and my newfound friend and I immediately left the path and strolled over for a closer look. They were, of course, chanterelles.

So we took some time going over the look, feel and even smell of these common woodland mushrooms. After that, my journalist companion became so adept at spotting chanterelles that she often beat me to the punch in noting a distant mushroom or mushrooms.

Lacking a basket or other container, the young writer removed her jacket, placed it on the ground and loaded it to the brim with mushrooms. This, too, was something that I have done numerous times... used whatever was at hand to fashion an ersatz “basket.”

With time running out, we headed back to the car. On the way, I spotted some coral mushrooms and we took some extra time to go over them. All in all, it was a rewarding walk for the both of us.

My seminar went well. People were seriously interested in the topic and I fielded some well-thought questions.

Back home, a couple in my church mentioned that they had some large mushrooms growing on their lawn and would I be interested in them. By their description, I concluded that these had to be giant puffballs. And sure thing, I was interested.

On my way home I stopped at their place and found a number of these colossal fungi, one of them nearly as big around as a basketball. My friends declined the mushrooms, perhaps out of a distaste for wild foods and maybe because they were just too busy. I was busy too, but took the mushrooms anyway. Now my refrigerator brims with gallon bags of peeled and sliced puffball mushrooms.

I plan on freezing what I can, eating as many as possible and giving away the remainder. That’s how wild mushrooms are, too. These things wait upon no one and when they are ripe, that’s when we must pick them.

It has certainly been a productive and enjoyable year for mushrooms for me and perhaps, it is not over yet. But if it is, that’s okay too.

I do plan upon digging some Jerusalem artichoke tubers to keep in the fridge. These, when sliced, rolled in a rub or other spicy coating, are a fine breakfast treat, something interesting in place of home-fried potatoes.

And so it goes. The foraging life always holds surprises. Who knows what wonders will next present themselves?