Archives: Foraging

By August 31, 2012Articles - Archives

Paul McHugh comments:

I never met the fabled Hal Silverman in person. He was editor of “California Living”— one of three (count ‘em, three!) magazines that ran in the Sunday edition of the combined San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner in the late 1970s. Though we had strictly  professional contact, via mail and phone, let me just say, that guy Hal was one hell of a sugar daddy to a whole generation of Northern California writers. Through the Sunday Examiner/Chronicle, with a readership of more than a million, he bestowed upon us a huge  distribution of our stories, as well as a decent check for doing our best. Here’s one of my favorites from the “California Living” era.

The Worth of a Pineapple

Drip. Drop. It took a moment for me to realize – that muffled, offbeat percussion I heard came from rain hitting my sleeping bag. But I drowsed back into sleep, hoping that by waking up differently, I might arrive in a different world. One where it might not be raining. That ploy didn’t work. So I writhed out of the soggy, Army-Surplus, “down” (feather, really!) bag. I tossed the bag into the camper shell on the back of my truck.

Then, still yawning and stiff, by early morning’s wet, gray, light, I tottered down to the riverside.

The Eel River, choked with rain and snowmelt, looked cold and blue as steel. Powerful, twisting current ran deep and fast. Over on the opposite bank, some forty yards away, I could see a canoe pulled up, out of the water and under the trees. I knew a solitary resident of this place used it for crossing back and forth. Right now, he seemed “forth.”

No help for it. If I stood here any longer under the deluge of spring, I’d get soaked anyhow.

So I stripped, and tucked the roll of my clothes and boots in the dry shadow of a big, lichen-smeared boulder. Then I walked my naked body into the icy Eel. By leaning upstream as I waded, and planting the spread toes of my bare feet carefully on the slippery, rounded cobbles of the riverbed, I was able to cross many yards before it got so deep that I was forced to dive in and swim.

Upon reach the far shore, instead of shivering and aching with cold – as I’d anticipated – I found that my body steamed with exhilaration and warmth.

I scrambled up the riverbank, then bounded along a well-worn path that led to a friend’s cabin.

The door was unlocked, so after knocking on it, I barged on through. Tayhanay was still lounging in bed. Bare and streaming river water, I stood before him. He cocked one sleepy eye up at me.

“You could have yelled,” he said, sleepy and amused. “I would have gotten up, paddled the canoe over, and gotten you.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t seem right, to do a lot of yelling out here.”

He smiled, arose, stoked the fire, dressed, put a kettle on.

After drinking hot tea, we shuttled the canoe across the river, collected my clothes and equipment, and returned. I sat by his wood stove and soaked up warmth as Tayhanay cooked breakfast.

“Want some?” he offered. “There’s plenty.”

“Thanks, but no. I should tell you the reason I’m here. For the next four days, my plan is to eat nothing at all – except for the things that I can forage.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “So. You know all about foraging, eh?”

“Nope!” I admitted. “Just miner’s lettuce. But I have some manuals. And if I don’t eat anything but forage items, that should give me plenty of incentive. Especially after a day or two.”

He seemed amused, unsurprised. Just as he had when I’d showed up wet and naked at his door. Call him, Mr. Imperturbable. He probably saw me as Mr. Improbable.

“More tea?”

“No. I’ve announced the program to you, so that means I’ve started. It’ll be strict observance. Just like the discipline of Cistercian monks.”

“It’s pennyroyal,” he explained, with perhaps a surfeit of patience. “From here.” With a hand sweep, he gestured toward the forested curves of the Northern California hills that ranged outside the cabin windows.

“Ah,” I said, and held out my cup.

After visiting for a bit, we went walking through the brush and wild meadows.

“Brodeias,” Tayhanay said, indicating a small purple flower nodding atop a short stem. “Flower, stem and bulb, all edible. Miwoks used it as a dietary staple. You may wish to consider the native attitude, and not pick too many from the same place. Treat plants with gratitude and respect, so they can prosper. Then they will see to it that you prosper, too. That’s the way life was lived, back then.”

As I plucked a brodeia bloom and thoughtfully chewed it, my mouth filled first with the cool moisture of raindrops, then the delicate savor of the petals. The flavor was earthy, herbal and light, all at the same time. During the next four days, no matter what else I found to nibble upon, these flowers would remain my favorites.

That morning in the meadows, Tayhanay showed me wild clover, edible grass roots and the green spikes of storksbill. Then, along the gulches where ephemeral creeks writhed down the hills, the flat wrinkled stars of soaproot.

Edible and Useful Plants of California. Charlotte Clark.

My foraging manuals were, “Wild Edible Plants,” by Donald Kirk, and “Edible and Useful Plants of California,” by Charlotte Clark. They seemed attractive and well-organized books, but I was happy having a friend who lived out here who could provide a personal introduction to the entities that Frank Zappa calls, “our green and yellow friends.”

That afternoon, walking alone and toting my collection sacks, I made my way along a high ridge. I knelt to dig up the tiny bulbs of brodeias with a sheath knife. Once stripped of their rough and hairy outer jacket, the bulbs were revealed as pale, shiny pearls that crunched, sweet and juicy, between my teeth.

As I ascended, meadows changed to chaparral, which grew steadily more dense and tangled.

Chamise, ceanothus with long flowering branches, red-barked Manzanita and scrub oak all competed for survival on the steep, poor soil, their interlaced branches forming a barrier nearly impermeable to progress. I wound up on my hands and knees, crawling along animal trails.

Delicate doe tracks printed the dusty earth. I found dry, broken rolls of coyote and bobcat scat. No plants looked very edible. I began to question the wisdom of expending energy on the climb. As a forager, it was probably smarter to stick around the lush meadows, where I knew I could find food.

Then, as I crawled around a bend in the trail, the shape of a bizarre, corrugated fungus caught my eye. It looked positively venomous, but it reminded me of a photo I’d seen in the Clark book. I pulled it out, found the page, and made my first solo identification: the fungus was a morel mushroom – Morchella esculens. Not just edible, it was supposed to be a culinary delicacy!

Clark wrote that morels could only grow where there was lots of fertile humus. I looked at the chaparral I’d been struggling through with fresh respect. Alchemizing sunshine into dark soil over decades, these tough plants had managed to lay down a layer of organic molecules rich enough to produce this sort of food. I left a few of the larger morels growing, to spore out and propagate their kind. The rest, I collected.

Near the summit of the ridge, I came across another beautiful meadow, where someone had once leveled a circle for a tipi. I saw a crude fence of stakes pounded into the ground around an overgrown garden and a springbox. Here, I gathered the young leaves of plantains (another positive identification from the books).

A light rain, almost a mist, began to fall, shrouding the river canyon from view.

But to my north, I could see a tall grove of Douglas firs. I hiked to these evergreens, and among them found a magic glen, where game trails laced through thick hummocks of bracken fern. As the tall firs swished and creaked high overhead, I picked soft “fiddleheads” from the tips of young ferns. I admired their symmetrical spirals, like chlorophyllic watchsprings. Each one looked about ready to twang out into a verdant frond.

By the time I finally came off the ridge, air in the lower canyon had grown blue and thick with dusk. The river chanted softly in my ears as I strolled up the footpath to my friend’s cabin. Sitting by his woodstove, I spread out my haul.

Tayhanay had already been feasting on coffee, panbread and vegetable stew. I noted that my nose had grown keenly appreciative of the aromas of cooking food, just one day into my planned forage-fast. He held up a dripping ladle of hot stew, and invited me to have some.

“Now, y’know,” he said – like an avuncular Mephisopheles – “anyone living out here in the old days would’ve had a garden, and a supply of stored grains and seeds. You wouldn’t be breaking your deal if you had a bowl of this.”

His eyes crinkled with glee as he blended the roles of tempter and host. This apparition, I can only describe as Coyote.

My gut growled a vote to take a bowl of stew and enjoy it. However, I turned it down. I still had to grant Coyote’s point – I did not need to be Puritanical, or strict to the point of self-righteousness. I borrowed a splash of mustard oil to saute’ the cog-shaped slices I sawed with my knife out of the morel mushrooms. As a hedge against mis-identification, I ate a small chunk and waited 30 minutes. Then a larger piece, and waited an hour. I was not bothered by so much as the twinge of a cramp, so I then happily munched my way through a panful. Urp!!

But I was less charmed by the steamed fiddleheads and plantains; both were strong and bitter. Their taste brought to mind the high mineral and vitamin content of wild plants. . . as well as the datum that bracken is supposed to be toxic and carcinogenic if consumed in quantity. They’re not alone in this. Even apple seeds contain hydrogen cyanide. Tomatoes are kissin’-cousins to deady nightshade. My foraging books, emphasized that only when carefully identified, selectively harvested and properly prepared, did wild plants offer valuable nutrition.

Assessing my condition at dawn on the second day, I did feel somewhat fortified, even though breakfast was simply a re-heat of the previous night’s dinner.

“POW! POW! POW! POW!”

“What’s that?” I was startled by rapid gunfire.

“Just the dominant culture’s kneejerk response to wilderness,” Tayhanay said. “Idiots like to drive out of town to a spot across the river, and play with their guns. Sometimes I go over and scream at them. But I just don’t feel up to it today. Yet.”

“POW! POW! POW!. . .” The shooting trailed off, and stopped as abruptly and inexplicably as it had begun.

In meadows by the river, I dined on sunshine, sweet clover and soaproot. For the soaproot, I dug with my knife under the flat, crinkled stars of the leaves. While I did so, I thought about the so-called Digger Indians, a non-existent tribe that white settlers seemed to see everywhere. They accused these “Diggers” of indolence and sloth. But it takes a great deal of patience to extract a root. Perhaps whites would have been better impressed if the Indians harvested roots with hydraulic mining, the way the settlers took gold – and left behind denuded moonscapes and piles of sludge.

The soaproot was a bit hard to swallow as food. That name alone should have warned me. Supposedly, the Miwoks not only used it as a source of starch, but also as a soap, a treatment for dandruff, and would also mash up the whole plant and throw it into streams to stupefy fish. Following the manuals, I did peel the bulbs, and then boiled and drained them twice. My gorge still rose. With tears in my eyes, I did manage to choke down some of what I had cooked. Then, feeling fairly stupefied, I went to bed.

Trout swam away from me in my dreams.

On the third day, I found a new meadow, and browsed and storksbill. Though I’d gathered and eaten stuff almost continually during daylight hours, the actual mass of stuff I’d eaten was fairly tiny compared to what my body was used to consuming. And I saw clearly that I was expending much more energy to get my food. There’s a world of difference between hiking all over a hill, and pushing a cart down the aisle of a grocery store. To put the obvious bluntly: foraging makes you conscious of the value of food molecules in a whole new way.

I knew pounds were melting off my body. Some sensations felt characteristic of a fast. My body seemed to become more permeable to light and sound. The dull, omnipresent murmur of the river drifted steadily through me. A spectral power of the earth seemed to be rising up into me from the soil.

Bit by edible bit, I gradually became more expert. For example, the biggest storksbill spikes were far from the best. I found that the smaller ones had tiny buds of the sweetest flavor, and less woody fiber to chew.

Had a tribal elder been around to mention this, I wouldn’t have needed to spit out so many wads of soggy cellulose.

But the teachers who could have helped me gather the secrets that lay in plain sight among the groves, the grasses and the river pools had been decimated, nearly exterminated, a century ago. Even Tayhanay was just a smart, skinny old white guy, trying to insert himself one stage further back into the wild landscape than most modern people care to go.

I looked out at the rumpled patchwork of chaparral plant communities quilting the hillsides, and gazed at the distant sway of the dark firs. So many plant beings. Hundreds! All with their individual natures and potential uses, woven into a dense and deep, complex tapestry. I only nibbled upon its fringe. How much of the hoard of millennial wisdom had been been lost, and blindly destroyed.

Not far from the Eel River, the Hill Patwin tribe had once ranged around a “strong medicine” area that we now call Wilbur Hot Springs. Mabel McKay, one of the last of that tribe, had her talk recorded by an anthropologist. Her quotes were later used in an Environmental Impact Statement. That’s one cool thing about an EIS; the number of nuggets like that which you can find, buried in the heaps of bureaucratese.

“They had many trails for going-out and coming-in,” Mabel said of her Patwin people. “They’d go out on one trail and return on a different one, so they wouldn’t disturb the animals and the plants. That’s what they called destroying things, if you just tramped over them. You go that way, you go this way, and there’s no opening for the food to grow. That’s what happens today. People go this way and that way and every way. That’s why there’s no food. People destroy it. People-Destroying-Their-Own-Food, it’s called.”

I closed my eyes, and envisioned immense rents torn in the earth’s fabric. I closed my fingers around the small storksbill that I held in one hand. A needle, to sew a thread or two across one of those vast tears. How many sutures would it take to tug it fully closed? And did we have enough time to make the effort?

That’s the pathos of our ethos.

At length, I came calmly to the end of the fourth day of my forage-fast. As the sun dropped and shadows slowly thickened in the canyon, I used Tayhanay’s canoe to go across the river to my truck. I rooted around in the back, found the box that held a ripe pineapple, then ceremonially carried it back to the cabin.

I had planned for this moment. Before I had even left my hometown of Mendocino on this trip to the Eel, I had researched the amount of energy and effort expended by my culture to bring that particular pineapple to my neighborhood store.

This pineapple had been grown on the Wahiawa Plantation in Oahu, Hawaii. It was either from the first harvest or the first ratoon (second crop from the same plant). It had been twisted and broken from the stem by hand, by one of a line of agricultural workers following conveyor booms of a huge harvester/tractor as it was driven through the long rows of the plantation.

Bins packed right aboard this tractor were then driven by flatbed truck to the Dole packing plant in Honolulu, where the pineapples were dipped in a fungicide solution.

Then my pineapple was sorted, labled, sized and packed in a crate. The box was stacked, wrapped with others in a cardboard slipsheet called a Pulpak, and trundled via forklift into a steel shipping container supplied by the Matson Navigation Company.
At this point, my pineapple began to be refrigerated. The container was unplugged was grabbed by a crane and loaded onto a ship, the Maukai, and there it was promptly plugged in to another outlet on the deck. On voyage number 213, the Manukai sailed to Oakland, and docked at the Matson wharves.

A shorebased gantry crane seized the container holding my pineapple, raised it, plonked it down on the wharf, and a mobile crane called a straddle-carrier snatched it up and ran it to a storage zone where it was plugged in for another jolt of voltage.

Soon, a driver named George, who handles a GMC tractor-trailer rig for Sunset Produce, drove over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to pick up the container.

He delivered it to Giovanni, who opened the container and spread its contents out with his other wares at the San Francisco Commerical Market.

Denny and Jim, who make pick-ups for “The Corners of the Mouth,” our health-food store in Mendocino, arrived in a bulk deliver truck they nick-named The Blue Goose, scored some boxes of pineapple from Giovanni, loaded them up with their other purchases, then headed back home to Mendocino.

We Mendo locals just refer to that store, located in an old church building, as, “Corners.” That’s where I found an almost-perfectly-ripe pineapple to put in my truck and bring with me on my trip inland to the Eel River and Tayhanay’s riverside cabin.

And then, inside that cabin, I hefted that pineapple in the same right hand that on the previous day had held a little, peeled bit of storksbill. This weighty tropical fruit held perhaps a thousand times the edible bulk of that little piece of wild plant. The amount of time, effort, fuel and energy expended by my culture to bring me that fresh pineapple was staggering.

I pulled out my now-fairly-dull sheath knife, and carefully sawed the pineapple into long eighths, and offered Tayhanay a slice. Then I raised a slice to my own lips. I chewed my way into it, as warm, sweet, stinging juice ran abundantly over my chin.

Oh, yes. Price. The pineapple cost me eighty-nine cents.