- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
I grew up in the vicinity of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but had relatives scattered all over that state from Buchanan to Bad Axe to Ishpeming. Among the most impressive was an elderly great-uncle-in-law by the name of Deb, who long before I knew him had more or less abdicated conventional family responsibilities and lived most of the time in a cabin on an island in the St. Joseph River. He occupied himself hunting, trapping, fishing, making a little liquor and poaching (in those days there were in Chicago—only 100 miles away—certain restaurants and gourmets who fancied wild delicacies enough not to ask embarrassing questions about seasons and sources). Also, as I learned by eavesdropping on the horrified gossip of my elders, when Deb got a bit ahead in the hard-cash department he was inclined to roar into the settlements to play a little cards or horses or worse.
Naturally, the solid citizens of the clan thought Deb a scandal, their own shameful version of Pap Finn. I admired him greatly, however, and, whenever I could escape from polite society, spent as much time as possible on the island. On and around the river I learned a lot of interesting skills and habits: to trap, butcher, fry and enjoy eating snapping turtles; to set trotlines; to ferry a canoe across the current; to clip the wings of a mallard duck; to imitate a wounded rabbit by kissing the back of the hand, a sound that attracts hawks, owls and foxes; to use a .22 rifle, the poacher's friend; to chew tobacco; to play cribbage and pitch.
Another thing we did (and something which has proved to have considerable carry-over value for me) was to forage—that is, rummage about in the bush looking for wild edibles. The motive for foraging is similar to that for hunting but involves raiding the flora rather than the fauna. In part because of Deb's good example and instruction, I developed early a taste for a variety of feral fruits and vegetables, fungi, roots, stalks, stems and seeds, but perhaps even more important, a taste for the act of finding them. For 40 subsequent years I have been indulging both these appetites.
Recently there has been a considerable revival of interest in the ancient pastime of foraging, probably because it fits in so nicely with a lot of other contemporary conceits and concerns—the Green Sensibility, Organic (as opposed to old-fashioned inorganic) Feeding, the New Hypochondria. Whatever the reasons, there seem to be a lot more people than ever before wandering about the countryside nibbling on barks and weeds. Concurrently there has been a great outburst of highly serious rhetoric about the meaning and mystique of eating wild. Gurus of the new foraging chic will insist that, say, yellow pond-lily roots will keep down hangnails, spruce up the karma and induce gastronomic orgasms. Some of these claims are about as hard to swallow as a green persimmon. For starters, expertly prepared pond-lily roots taste somewhat like weak, watery, muddy potatoes laced with Styrofoam. Still, there is certainly no harm in people thinking they will achieve union with the ecological absolute by eating dandelions. However, such notions create a lot of heavy metaphysical luggage that is not needed for such a simple trip.
It has always seemed to me that what it all boils—and sometimes bakes and stews—down to is that you forage for about the same reasons you run around trying to collect the semifinalist trophy in the Class C Over 45 doubles tournament of the Chop and Lob Racket Club. It makes little sense, but it is fun. Also moderately stimulating exercise. (According to the latest report of the International Institute for Applied Foraging Research of Iron Springs, Pa., five sets of August-afternoon tennis have the same strenuosity factor as preparing two quarts of wild blackberry jam from brier bush to mason jar.) It is a good way to escape for a few hours from whatever needs escaping. The tangible rewards are often purely symbolic—yellow pond-lily roots being no better as food than $6.75 tennis cups are as decorative sculpture. However, occasionally there is a foraging bonus. The trophy you bring back may have considerable intrinsic value—not monetary but sensual, as in the case of, say, the oyster mushroom, of which more in a moment. In any event, these are reasons why foraging has always seemed to me to be as worthy as any other kind of recreation and no more absurd.
All of which prefaces the hard news that last year was one of the finest foraging years on record, at least in the central Pennsylvania highlands where I have been located for two decades. As a matter of fact, exceptional foraging was just one, though perhaps the most satisfying, of a number of unusual phenomena. For example, the winter of 1976-77 was the most memorable in Pennsylvania since Valley Forge. It ended abruptly in early May shortly after the last snow when a searing August-type drought withered spring corn and pastures. The drought was broken by a rainstorm of a volume that the U.S. Geological Survey says should occur only once every 500 years. Then one morning there was an unidentified underground racket that shook local people out of their beds. Experts said an immense limestone cavern had collapsed underneath us, but naturally there has been a lot of scary and private explanation about what really happened on "The Morning the Earth Moved." It snowed again in October but was balmy enough to swim in quarries in November. There was an unverified report of a 42-pound raccoon and, later, monster sightings—one of a Bigfoot type and the other of a lion-style monster.
Some foragers speculate that there may be a natural connection between the earth moving (or the conditions that made it move) and the most abundant crop of fat blackberries anyone can remember, but all that is really known is that a lot of wild desirables did exceedingly well. In consequence, so did a lot of us who enjoy looking for them.
A stray late persimmon aside, my own foraging season normally begins when the sap starts rising in the dozen or so maple trees that grow along a spring drain that meanders down the slope of an abandoned pasture adjacent to my house. Hereabouts this normally occurs anytime between late January and mid-March, but given the ferocity of the winter, there was some concern about if—as well as when—the maples would thaw out. However, there was no need to worry. In mid-February there came a string of clear days when the temperature rose above the 50s at midday and fell to below freezing at night. There is no exact mechanical explanation, but everyone who has had anything to do with maples knows that this kind of brisk alternation between warmish days and cold nights acts like a tonic on the sugar trees and sets their juices to flowing at a great rate. Like the migration of birds, the flow of sap is something we have been collectively watching for a long time without ever precisely understanding the principles involved.
From a safe, contemplative, abstract distance, a maple in the spring comes on as a kind of marvelous arboreal Shmoo. Here stands a tree that nobody has had to buy, plant, weed, prune or spray. Entirely of its own free will it begins to course with a rare and sweet fluid that makes the best pancake topping known to man and costs $11 a half gallon when bought at Uncle Ezra's Vermont Maple Market. All of which from time to time has set people to thinking that the sugar maple is living proof that Barry Commoner was wrong, that indeed there is such a thing as the free lunch. This is the great maple shuck; in fact, it is the great foraging illusion. If the matter—in this case maple syrup—is pursued, reality shortly becomes apparent. It is that Commoner was right—there is no such thing as the free lunch.
There are some peripheral but genuine considerations. If you are going to leech a tree, you have to pierce a considerable trunk, then insert taps, which have to be made, borrowed or bought. The end of these taps must be fitted with some kind of container suitable for catching and holding whatever leaks out of the tree. All of this leads up to the central reality. What comes out of the tree is not pancake dressing but maple sap, a thin, clear, watery liquid. The goodness is there (it is very faintly sweet) but to get at it you have to boil the sap until a lot of water has disappeared and very little syrup remains. Generally speaking, 35 gallons of sap evaporates down to a gallon of syrup, although the amount varies from place to place, tree to tree, even day to day.