Sunday, March 13, 2011

Springtime Foraging

Years ago I enrolled at a college in Michigan for the spring quarter. The month was March and in South Texas springtime, though weeks away for most other places, was already unfolding. New leaflets had emerged from the trees turning an otherwise drab landscape into a pageant of nearly endless shades of green. On the rocky hillsides, atop the limestone sediments and into the sandy flats millions of cacti were in the midst of their yearly floral kaleidoscope. It is the time of year no true woods roamer wants to miss and for a moment I thought of not going north but staying where I knew my heart lay—wandering The Brushlands as I had done since childhood.

I’ve witnessed quite a few springtimes in my life and hope to glimpse a few more. Nowadays it seems most people find any sort of “outdoor experience” void of pleasure unless filled with the interminable noises from dirt bikes and ATVs. They “hunt” within the claustrophobic confines of a “deer blind” and seldom, if ever, walk from one place to another. Spring time is something that occurs out there.

But for untold generations spring meant rebirth and new life, and most of all it meant food. As a boy I roamed the brush with my grandfather who was perhaps the most knowledgeable woodsman I have ever known. In some ways, my skills have surpassed his but overall he was the master. My greatest schooling came not from the halls of academia but from all those meandering trails when we walked the woods pausing at every turn to look and examine and learn. His lectures were short and to the point, and the emphasis was always on how to live with what grew before me.

We are enthralled with knives and hatchets (I am as guilty of that as the next person) but the real secret to outdoors knowledge and survival comes from knowing the plants. If you do not have an in depth understanding of the plants growing around you then you will forever be a novice. Knowing how to build a shelter, make fire and trap an animal is important. But for long term life in the woods you must know the plants.

Over the next few weeks I’ll show you not only what the most common edible plants are in the Southwestern parts of the United States but I will also teach you how to prepare them. And why now you might ask? Because now is the time to learn to gather and make food. Springtime brings new growth and for thousands of years people waited patiently, if not a bit anxiously, for the time when new leaves and flowers arrived. This last week was spent in the woods far from computers and televisions where preparations were made for the food about to arrive: Cataloging plots of cacti about to flower or sprout new pads, and groves of trees where delicious legumes will grow, and at plants hiding tubers or ready to offer flowered stalks—even to the herbs used for salads, spices and condiments.

The above photo and the picture at the top of this posting are from the same tree. The fruit is eaten by humans, birds and small mammals and will begin appearing in about two weeks. When we were kids we’d gather around these trees like grackles or chachalacas, maybe cedar waxwings, making all kinds of noises, talking loudly and munching on the berries until we felt sick. Can anyone guess what the plant is called?

This tree provided a staple food for the Indians of the region for thousands of years. Here’s a clue: It’s a legume. In a few weeks we’ll look at the way the beans are prepared for everything from bean soup to a sort of Brushlands coffee.               

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