Honouring Spring’s Wild Food

|By Steven Martyn|

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burdock roots and overwintered fingerling potatoes

April is a most bounteous time. The snow has finally receded, and the ground is thawing. The Earth, our virgin bride lay naked and sleepy eyed, cleansed and revitalized by the long, frozen sleep.

And while the land looks washed out and barren, a feast is being prepared from hidden dimensions. Almost every plant is, or will be edible in the next month. Once the freeze comes out of the ground, the plants awaken and begin to transform. It is their time to physically manifest life from their dreamtime ‘larval’ state.

If you are a wildcrafter, it’s good to know that as soon as the freeze comes out, the plant’s ethereal creative energy is at its peak. So generally, this means the sooner you harvest spring roots, the better. There are a few plants that get better as their heart awakens and they send out rich shoots of growth, but most tubers decline in taste, nutritional and medicinal value, as the shoots grow.

This time of year, the land gives us the sweetness of Her essence. From the March equinox to May day She gives us sweet sap to drink (first Maple and then Birch), to detoxify, purify and re-nutrify. At the farm here, we drink at least a couple of litres a day, the kids love it and glow with the sap’s vitality.

overwintered carrots, the sweetest ever!
overwintered carrots, the sweetest ever!

Then, She gives us barks and roots. The kids and I dug up fresh, bright, orange carrots from the winter soaked earth. This time of year, tree barks and roots are filled with sugars, which enabled them to be in a frozen state for months, and then come alive again. While we usually dig roots in the fall, for winter storage, it’s good to remember to leave some for the spring too, when the roots are actually the most tasty, digestible and nutritive. A century ago in the southern Algonquin region where we live, it was not uncommon for pioneers to die of starvation in the few weeks before spring growth. It is likely that these Europeans didn’t know what wild food there was to eat, or how to overwinter crops in the garden.

If we know the land well, we see the Earth offers us a miraculous bounty at this time of year. Miraculous, because the abundance appears from nowhere, and because it is exactly what we need after a long winter of deprivation.

Interest in “wild foods” has increased dramatically over the past five to ten years, and I’m often asked to do “wild plant” walks this time of year. I am honoured by the asking, but usually say no. When I was a novice I liked doing walks because I got to share what I knew. But as I’ve gotten older and gotten to know the plants more deeply the walks leave me feeling disappointed. When you do a ‘walk’, many people are impatient, they just want the “goods’, boom boom boom, ” what do I eat? – and how do I eat it?”. They don’t want to wait for the plants stories, her culture. I’ve even seen promotions for such walks or outings that claim, you will learn about “nature’s supermarket”.

our maple taps, made with hollowed out sumac
our maple taps, made with hollowed out sumac

The problems with describing and seeing “nature” as a supermarket are enumerable, but it also sadly reflects how people approach the Wild land, like She is a supermarket. Once some novices know what to harvest, they harvest exactly the same way as they would take goods in a grocery store, but like they’re getting it for free!  This type of greedy harvesting has given wildcrafting a bad name.  Now, you can even be charged for over-harvesting plants, like wild leeks and fiddleheads. But, there should be no need for the enforcement of harvest limits. The problem is in the way we’re thinking about and approaching the Wild. Many wild harvesters do it in part because it’s “free” food, not realizing that in the taking there is debt created, to the plants themselves, and the land.

The supermarket is a fantasy of western culture, a Disney land that could not be further from the reality of Wild land. In supermarkets most of us are fussy, either for price or quality. We seldom act like we should, with awe and deep appreciation for the abundance and diversity of produce. Instead, we take what we like with unquestioning entitlement, and complete detachment from the actual people and land that grew the food. Many of these people, whose work and land supply the food chains, are impoverished and enslaved. They sell the food for a small fraction of what we buy it for. Food chains play their part in the pyramid, as the top organized middlemen, at the end of a chain of middlemen, all of whom make money off the backs of the “third world” workers and their land. Supermarket representatives will say “oh don’t worry about that, were giving all these people work, and… look at our supply, the variety and how cheap it is!” On the supply side, these stores are served only by their own kind, huge industrial growers, producers and distributors. The buyers for supermarkets buy shippers full of produce at the depot. Most often they don’t even know the name of the people who grow the food, let alone what the story of their family’s land is. These industries have “unlimited” access to the food storehouses all over the world, and because the market sanctions competitive pricing the worst thing possible happens, which is, each poor country is pitied against the next poorest, and forced to dive into industrial production that is even more detrimental in the tropics. Many people in the “developed” country get rich and we get access to tones of tropic fruit, coffee and cocoa, but the people and land where the food is grown is enslaved by the profits of multinational companies and the middle men that facilitate their sales.

Digging Roots
Digging Roots

By contrast, when we buy local food, in an open market from vendor-producers, as we have done for tens of thousands of years, we connect directly with the farmer. Then, the farmer makes all of what we pay, which is as it should be. When we buy direct from the farmer we can see their character and question their farming practices. So, even though we didn’t grow or harvest the food we connect with the person and land that did.

When we garden and when we harvest wild food we should do so with great reverence and care. Far from the casual grocery browsing, when we approach plants in the wild we should be feeling love, and thinking about how grateful we are and how much we appreciate the plant. We should not be thinking about getting or “taking” the goods for free. This supermarket approach offends and alarms the plants.

When we are interacting with the wild plants we should be centred and peaceful. In this calm state, find the elder plants and tell them in a heart felt way why you need them, that you are hungry or need medicine, and then ask that they give of themselves. We need to plead and bargain with them, for them to let us have their children. Yes, this is the gruesome truth of food; we are always eating someone’s children to survive. But this is life. The only choice you have is how you do it. You can kill things with honour and gratitude for the plant or animals life,  or you can just carelessly take things and be subject to the karma that your ignorance will bring you and your people.

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the snow has melted; the land comes back to life

In return for the food, for her children, we give her our loyalty and respect. Which means we help her family thrive, by leaving the “parent” plants to seed future generations. We’re obligated to watch out for the tree or herb patch that has fed or healed us, as it grows each year, and over generations. And, in our love and appreciation we spread the family to new areas, we help perpetuate them. This dance with the Wild, with Her plant people, is how we all survived for hundreds of thousands of years, long before the age of ‘agriculture’ and ‘civilization’.

Wild plants are very powerful and when we harvest or eat them, we should always view them in terms of medicine. Domesticated food has been highbred and pampered for thousands of years and this process has taken much of the spirit medicine from the plant, as well as many of her constituents that enabled the plant to survive in the wild. So, when we are not used to eating a wild plant or mushroom it’s good to only harvest a very small amount at first, and to only consume a small amount. This enables your body and spirit to work with the wild plant energy and not be overwhelmed by it. After you get to know the plant well, and know how to harvest her sustainably, then you can take what the plant has to offer.

To harvest plants respectfully we must know them very well, not just from a quick walk or reference book, but from years of observation and interaction with them, from which we glean a deeper understanding of her cycles and relations. When we harvest with respect, we are not only assuring the plant family’s future health, but we are linking ourselves with that family and that place. In our taking we acknowledge our indebtedness to them. In western culture the idea of being in debt is dreaded, because we associate it with banks and money-lenders. But, the origins of indebtedness are far more noble, and arguably, the binding force of culture.

The simple fact is, we are connected to those to whom who we are indebted. We feel it. Hopefully, in thankfulness we send them good energy, as interest on the loan. And should a time come when those to whom we are indebted to are threatened, a tree or a patch of plants that is going to be plowed down or ‘developed’,  then we will act appropriately, saving them. So the debt, is of mutual benefit to everyone. Real “mutual insurance”!, with a monthly fee of attention, love and care.