Friday, June 22, 2012

Day lily and stinging nettle feast in May

Primitive Pursuits Day in May was planned as an all-day public event with music, food and numerous crafts and activities for all ages. As a trainee instructor I was assigned to helping people make dogbane cords for necklaces and bracelets, accompanying the making of bark baskets, hot-coal burning of wood containers, chipping points for arrows and tools, throwing atlatls, weaving mats out of reeds, meeting animals and raptors – and eating wild foods.

The day before the big event I volunteered to gather day lily bulbs for the wild foods cookery. Jed sent me and Abby down to the floodplain of Fall Creek across the road – big beds of day lilies there. Following a hot and grimy half hour of vicious grinding efforts to dig into the dry soil with our picturesque digging sticks, I trekked back up to grab a shovel and Sefra’s extremely cool trowel. (From comments, I gathered that it is THE trowel to have. I felt so ignorant, of a well-developed American subculture where garden trowels enjoy high status.)

After that we were rolling, and at the end of two hours staggered back uphill with our arms full of day lily plants – the tasty (dirt-covered) bulbs attached to the long green leaves. The beautiful flowers had yet to form. It is ok to harvest day lilies – they are a prolific non-native and their numbers recover quickly; and as with the ramps mentioned earlier, you can re-plant what’s left of the bulbs after cleaning, for re-growth.

Unhappily for a brief time, both of our trusty leaders Jed and Tim looked at us in dismay when we showed up all proud and such. I guess due to the prep required for such a large amount of plants, it simply looked like a problem to them. Jed said, “How will we prepare them?” as though he and Tim had not, a few weeks previously, showed us how to dig them up, clean them in the nearest running water, cut the best solid firm dark bulblets from the rest of the roots, mash them with a big rock and fry up with a bit of flour and salt into tasty day lily bulb fritters. I guess he was doing the ol’ Coyote Way thing, because we burst out with big explanations of how to do all that and he just shook his head and … ran away to work on something more pressing.

So I took the big heap back to my house, soaked them overnight in buckets of water to loosen the dirt, got up early the next day to trim the roots from the leaves, cut off all the usable bulbs, washed and scrubbed some more. This took several hours and yielded about 1.5 pounds of day lily bulbs. That’s a lot, considering, but – also consider the inputs of water and labor. (During the day-long event, our chef Shawn added about another quarter pound of cleaned bulbs from lilies I had not had time to “process.”)

The day lily green leaf stalks can be peeled down to a white inner core (like cattails) with a tender not-quite-scallion flavor, but that is a VERY labor intensive process with low yields, so I gave it up after cleaning and prepping a few handfuls.

Happily, wild foods chef Shawn took one look at the 1.5 lbs of concentrated day lily bulb treasure and knew what to do. Like me, he felt that sauteeing the bulbs in a bit of oil with salt (in a big skillet over a hot-coal wood fire) for a few minutes was all the prep needed. (That’s how I prepared them a few times back in the 1970s when I first got into this stuff.) This gentle treatment allows their surprisingly complex flavor to emerge. To get folks to take a bite, Shawn said they were “like tiny potatoes”  – but the flavor was more interesting than “potato.” Surprise and thoughtfulness were the expressions on samplers’ faces after their first bite.

The other delicious wild food gathered and prepared for the day-long event was nettles, yes the very same, the scary dreaded stinging nettles that cause people to cry and thrash around for ten minutes until the pain subsides.

Wear gloves! Gather them in giant quantities while they are young (when cooked they are greatly reduced, like other greens)! Break off the tender, new-growth top third. When they are dropped into boiled water or sautéed, the prickers instantly vanish, and the resulting cooked green is deeply flavored, tangy and iodiny like seaweed (or, I am told, certain single malt Scotches). They reflect the essential flavor of the deep green that emerges outdoors in late springtime.

Chef Shawn combined these two flavorful treats as small bites served in tiny paper cups. He sprinkled a garnish of chopped day lily leaf cores on top until those ran out.  Assistant cook and fire tender Stephen carried the morsels around through the crowds in a pine bark basket. People would bravely try a nibble – then their expressions would change and they would say “Wow!” “Delicious!” “I can’t believe how good this is!” and many other mildly astonished remarks.  We had enough to feed folks steadily from 10 am to 3 pm.

I subsequently replanted the leftover discarded and less-than-perfect day lily bulbs in my backyard and many are already sending up new shoots. Previously established plants are now flowering. The big red-orange blossoms of day lilies are edible – either just to munch, or Italian cooks batter and fry them and squash blossoms, tempura style. NOT ALL BIG or small LILIES ARE EDIBLE – many contain toxins. Know your plants!

Beautiful sounds in the early morning

I woke before dawn when the weather changed slightly and rain drops began to fall. I lay in bed and listened to the hesitant, occasional drops hitting the window and roof overhead, hoping that the process would gain velocity and turn into a good downpour. So many rainstorms “nowadays” yield only enough water to lay the dust, and then dry up or move on. Not enough to satisfy! After about ten minutes of drips and drops, the sound began to change into steady rainfall, and I relaxed.

Drowsing, I heard a wonderful new sound – a plasticky “thump thump,” coming from the corner of the house just outside my window – outside of the bedroom corner into which my bed is tucked. 

Dreamily, I thought of it as the first spurts of milk into a pail (where have I ever heard that?). The individual thumps became a rapid thumping – and then morphed into the sound of drops landing in water. It was rainwater coming off the roof into the big bucket at the bottom of the downspout.

Oh how beautiful the sounds, as I listened to the rainwater rushing down the drainpipe in drops and pretty little trickles, landing in the rising water to fill the big bucket. Later on that day I walked around the house to stare with deep comfort at the four 5 gallon buckets now filled with clear cold rainwater.

Maybe, with sufficient conservation and management, this July and August won’t be as bad as last summer, when I overwatered and my well went dry for six weeks.

(Read all about it – scroll down to Older Posts, or go to 2011 summer and fall dates listed in the archives)

Friday, June 15, 2012

The water marmot

We are slightly uneasy here in utopia about a rabid fox having bit a dog one day and a hiker at Buttermilk Falls State Park the next. (It was then shot dead.) Is this the start of an epidemic??

So at a recent Primitive Pursuits wilderness skills training they put us through our paces with our throwing sticks, to aim at targets in the woods “as though your life depends upon it.” Their serious message was somewhat marred by the nature of the targets – sticks set upright in the ground, each with an Oreo cookie perched on top. Hit the stick, get the Oreo. (Hit the Oreo, obliterate it.) These were Paul Newman brand cookies, highly virtuous in many ways, but not alas gluten free. We did this for about fifteen minutes. I did not bag a cookie.

Then we put our packs on and walked up the trail through the woods. Leader Jed discussed with us the animals that are prone to rabies locally, one of them being the water marmot. No one had heard of a water marmot? He insisted that it was a local, indigenous member of “the marmot family” and that he and co-leader Tim (who had vanished from our group) had often stalked it and the elusive fisher, up the very trail we were headed.* When it contracts rabies, Jed told us, it transforms from being a water animal to a land animal, and takes to the trails.

We continued to trudge up the steep trail, heads down, bunched in a group, thinking over all these worrisome things. Jed spun around and said, “I really think you all had better have your throwing sticks out and ready. And separate – get about ten feet apart – in case you need to throw that stick in a hurry.”

OK! We finally got it! We drew our sticks like lightsabers from our packs, spread out along the trail and began to scrutinize our surroundings. Several people ahead of me topped a little rise and were out of sight. Suddenly screams erupted from up there!! A loud bellowing and banging! People were shouting.

We ran up the hill, to see Tim galloping toward us through the trees, chased by a gallon water jug half filled with water, that he was pulling behind him via a string. “Help! Help!” he was shouting, “Save me from the water marmot!” We all threw our sticks forcefully at the gallon jug as it hurtled past. “Water marmot! Water marmot!” he screamed but then the string broke, and the marmot ground to a halt behind him.

We all ran to grab our sticks as he re-tied the string, and we regrouped to each again savagely attack the water jug as it hurtled back past us, chasing Tim to a big tree where he, it and we all stopped for lunch. Sefra Levin ran around in the woods with the marmot chasing her for another few minutes as she happily screamed “Water marmot!”
* Jed Jordan has corrected the water marmot facts listed above. It is an invasive species.

<<< Group recovers, following ferocious attack.

Garlic mustard makes a bitchen dip and pesto

Spring weather was on a gradual but definite warming trend – though not on the Friday that our Primitive Pursuits wilderness skills training group (aka Barred Owls) met down at the dog park parking lot on Cayuga Inlet. We spent the day in the willows and wetlands on Cayuga Lake’s southern shore, in the teeth of a stiff wind funneling crisp cold air straight down Cayuga Lake from Canada.

After digging up burdock root (to eat!) and being blindfolded to find out how hard it is to walk a straight line unsighted, and playing deer-coyote in the dry grass from last year, we finally got under shelter in the willows that I have looked at so often when driving the lakeshore road. It’s not completely a natural setting in those woods – I think there’s an old dump of concrete and asphalt debris from the airport runways that were once part of Ithaca’s airport. But the trees and grasses and coyotes (big dens!) are softening and naturalizing the area. Beyond this somewhat uncomfortable zone, a beautiful small creek comes down via waterfalls out of the steep wooded slopes that drop to the lake’s western shore.

And there we all sat, on a low shore of rocks, surrounded by the creek’s gentle flowing waters, under big trees that were beginning to leaf out. Trucks zoomed by on the lakeshore road in the woods a few hundred feet away, but our group felt private and at peace.

We took notes on Jed and Tim’s discussion of the daily, seasonal and directional values that underlie Primitive Pursuits programs, and THEN…. it was time to start mashing up the garlic mustard we had been instructed to gather under the willows.  

This early spring weed is regarded as a major nuisance plant. People whine and moan about it everywhere you go, and have big events to pull it up and discard it. Wait a minute, because garlic mustard sure makes a bitchen dip and pesto. We had all grabbed up handfuls of the fresh green upper part of the plants, and set to work pounding it up on flat creek stones with round stones into a garlicky green mash. Leader Jed just happened to have a small jar of olive oil in his pack, and a very natural bowl in one of his pockets, and Tim dredged two packets of crispy gluten free crackers out of that big white pail he had been hauling around all day.

It was all swirled together with a nice clean stick – and then we fell upon it, eating mouthfuls of the fresh green garlicky spring essence out there in the middle of that pretty creek. This was also a lesson by example on how to construct a daily program for kids and adults – following up active games and learning activities with quieter teaching and reflection, and having something to eat that embodies and exemplifies what has gone on during the day. 

At a Primitive Pursuits spring camp session for kids, at day’s end I watched thirty children wolfing down this rough and ready treat and other woodland delicacies, surely something they would not be caught dead doing at home!

Our adult training group mopped up every gooey green morsel, drank water, chattered a bit more and then began to thread our way back through the woods and fields to our cars, replete with good food on a wonderful day. 

Ramps in early spring woods - abundant, vulnerable

We had a fabulous crop of ramps in the woods early this spring. One day Peggy and I really got into it, and gathered about 2 pounds (in a half hour). The ramps have a VERY delicate, yet full onion-shallot flavor. She carried this treasure away to her apartment, and ate ramp-flavored everything for several days.

The white below-ground bulb has a lot more flavor than the green leaves that show above-ground. Many folks are worried about over-harvesting so they leave the bulbs in the ground and just take the leaves – and then probably wonder what’s so special about ramps!

We dug with a trowel or shovel to fully remove several plants, in scattered areas around a ramp bed. New plants will spread to fill in the small gaps left by the digging. But you do need to be careful because the growing areas are fragile, usually an uneven woodland surface with little or no soil, covered in rocks and roots amongst which the ramps flourish. If you are really concerned about over-harvesting, after cleaning the ramps you can carry the remnants of the roots back out to the woods and bury them for re-growth.

Someone not acclimated to these careful harvest practices can easily damage woodland ramp beds. I was contacted by a restaurant person who said he’d like to come by with a shovel and dig ramps out of my woods.

At first I thought that would be ok, if I went along, but my new Primitive Pursuits friends said, “Never let anyone else do the harvesting or they’ll ruin it.” They meant that the well-meaning ramp hunter could crush the ramps, rip up and trample the beds, and make a giant mess with a shovel, without even realizing it.

So I offered to harvest and deliver a certain amount of ramps, but the contact never finalized – probably just as well! Maybe next year, with the accent on maybe.