Being a committed locavore easily becomes confusing. In our complex world one can lose the True Way and get entangled in debates over harrowing questions such as the ethics and ecosystem wisdom of removing the plant and its roots, or of calculating the carbon footprint of transporting local plants long distances; or of re-planting at a distance from a plant’s original location.
I have a story from March that combines all three of these pesky puzzlers.
Nowadays I live in the family house near Ithaca NY. We are moving into spring by building raised beds for vegetables; we transplanted 50 raspberry bushes to the front and back yard; we have signed up for a summer Community Farm Alliance weekly basket of local produce; I started a gallon of dandelion wine yesterday! (More is coming on these topics and others.)
In late March, I drove 823 miles west and south to my cabin in Green County, Kentucky. I needed to catch up with friends, and was worried about the cabin, the home I was working on when the economic imperative of these rough times called me to move back to New York State. This one-room cabin with loft was built with the advice and encouragement of my friend Deb and the math skills and skilled brute strength of my friend Sam. Surrounding the cabin are 25 acres of recovering pasture, woodland and steep bluffs that descend to the Little Barren River.
At the end of the 823 miles, accompanied by two deeply dissatisfied cats, it was a relief to find the cabin as I had left it in early December – in fact, the windows were still open and the dishes were unwashed from last fall, because my car engine had imploded on the way there, just before I had to depart Kentucky for New York State.
I cleaned up, swept out two months of wintertime dead bugs, slept soundly in the deep country silence, and donated books to the Hart County school libraries with my friends from the Bacon Creek Watershed Council. I even locked myself out and had to climb in a secret way, with my cats watching in amazement.
With a pot of chili on the wood stove, I invited friends to visit. Duke drove over from Corbin with his dog Ernie Fletcher (named after an unloved Kentucky governor), and Julian showed up with Will. These two are Kentucky naturalists of the extreme pro-native plants ilk. They argue that a plant should be as local as you can possibly manage – not merely from “the Southeast” or from Kentucky, but if possible from the same Kentucky county, or even closer, to the land it will be planted on. The DNA tracking tools are not available to do this with any accuracy, but when they say native, they mean it.
The Kentucky land that hosts my cabin is far from pristine. Home to Native Americans for centuries before the 19th century Europeans tore it up big-time, the area is now calming back down into wildness, but in two visits Julian has not found anything wonderfully native except for the tall, dense creekside thickets of beautiful Kentucky cane.
However, Julian is no plant snob, and he emerged from the woods with his hands full of a pretty little green plant – roots and all. “Winter cress! Fresh winter cress!” he called as he approached. “Delicious cooked as a winter green! Boil it twice to get rid of the bitterness,” he advised as he gave the plants to me.
To make an 823-mile long story short, the winter cress ended up traveling back to New York State with me, in a cooler atop locally-produced Kentucky ice. What carbon footprint formula is subtle and nuanced enough to calculate the energy cost of digging up a local food, then transporting it that far – and then, after consuming its green parts, re-planting the roots in New York State soil?
I am not up to these subtleties, but next I’ll tell you how to cook winter cress, with thanks to the classic advice and common sense found in Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1973 reprint).