Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring Foraging Weekend

Well May 15th may be planting day here in northern Colorado, but th' harvest is already ripe for th' pickins. On Saturday we spent th' day in th' mountains, near Poudre Canyon, and what a stunning day it was. Th' first fruits to greet us were th' juniper berries.

Rocky Mountain Juniper Berries in spring.

I crushed up a handful and sprinkled it atop a quiche we brought with us for lunch, and a fine compliment it was. But even better was one, yes one lonely berry, bruised and dropped inside a bottle of sparkling water. A more refreshing drink is hard to find. Fynn just ate th' berries raw, one after another. Here he is now popping one into his mouth.

Fynn eating juniper berries
After lunch we wandered around a bit, and found some neat little burrows dug all through th' grass, dirt, and even snow. Field Mice? Not sure.

Without waiting to solve that mystery, we kept on exploring. Following a mostly dry, at this time of year, creekbed led us to some new growth of cow parsnip.

Cow Parsnip, early spring growth
Here's last years seeds, one of th' major identifying characteristics at this time of year.

Cow Parsnip seeds and stalks.
These are really good eating, (not at this stage of course) reminiscent of celery with it's clean, slightly numbing after taste, but, like everything in th' Rockies, quite a bit stronger. Cow Parsnip was a favorite food of many native americans, one taste of it's stalk and you'll know why. Please don't eat hemlock though, thinking it's a Cow Parsnip. Especially with foods in th' carrot family, know what you're eating, or don't eat it.  One bite of hemlock will kill you. We have a friend who barely survived an encounter with it, and she didn't even eat any of it, just touched it to her tongue.

Not far from th' parsnip we started getting tangled up in briars. Good news when you know that means mountain raspberries in th' summer. Here's a close up of a cane from last year, and then a whole hillside covered in canes. We'll make sure to save some for th' bears.

raspberry cane

lots of raspberry canes.
 Then we spent some time enjoying the enormouse Ponderosa pines. Th' bark of  these trees smells like vanilla. We all took a sniff, and Fynn licked th' tree a few times, just like he did with th' maple sap earlier this year.

Ponderosa Pine

Beth gathered some needles for pine needle tea. High in vitamins C and A, this tea is also an expectorant and decongestant, good for preventing and fighting colds. Brew th' needles fresh, and cut off th' sheath at th' base, as this gets pretty sharp tasting if brewed. Here's Beth harvesting some needles, and a cup of brewing tea as well, which we enjoyed as soon as we got home. I added some to a pot of green tea, just a bit, to make a nice Rocky Mountain Green blend.

Beth harvesting pine needles

Pine needle tea
All in all it was a very good day, and being in th' mountains makes us wonder how life ever got so complicated. It's so peaceful up here, and everything you need is provided. When and why did we decide that th' wilderness should be for recreation and sport, instead of our home?

Th' next day we went out to find some curly dock for dinner. Sadly, most of th' field where we've found so much food, as well as wild honey (which we have not harvested, and now won't be able to) was now torn up in preparation for who knows what. Probably more houses. But there was still a small portion left, and we did find quite a bit of dock.

Rumex Crispus, early spring

You know what dock is right? It's th' plant that makes th' big rust colored seed stalks that you see in th' fields from late summer till spring.

dock seeds, and owl feather
This has been one of our favorites this past week. We've been craving fresh greens, not store bought ones, but th' ones that grow just outside our door. Dock actually beats th' dandelion as far as providing fresh greens, and we've been eating them steamed with butter and apple cider vinegar, or olive oil and red wine. They're really pretty fabulous. Beth cooked some up with bacon, and it reminded me of growing up in east Texas eatin collard and turnip greens.

Curly Dock greens, raw

But th' cream of th' crop, literally, came tonight when we made dock "saag paneer".

dock "saag paneer"
This actually tasted like authentic Indian restaurant saag paneer. Here's how i did it, and if you know how to make the authentic stuff, and see that i did it differently, i dare your taste buds to tell th' difference blindfolded.

I took three cloves of garlic, chopped up not big or small, and about a tenth of an onion, sauteed these up with  some butter and olive oil and chili powder. When they got good and brown, i added finely diced dock leaves and a small bit of water and simmered this for about fifteen minutes. Then i added some curri powder, chopped provolone cheese and half and half, till it looked about th' consistency of what i've eaten at th' restaurants. This i simmered on low for about twenty minutes, till it got good and thick, and voila! It really was fabulous.

While we were hunting dock, we found another treat. Do you know what this is?

That's right, it's th' purple mustard, or musk mustard. This plant can cover whole fields, and you often smell it while going about town. It smells kinda like a dirty dish rag, which sounds gross, but when you know it's a flower, it's an absolutely enchanting aroma. These make great field snacks, and a wonderful addition to salads.

purple "musk" mustard.
 And here it is on a nice lunch salad.

salad with mustard greens
Well, we had a fine weekend, and we look forward to th' days to come. I do hope you can say th' same. And as long as there's a speck o th' wild left, we'll enjoy it.


Caughtcha red handed!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Knives, Kindness, and the Economy

A year or two ago Beth and I were asked by a friend if we would make him some pannier bags for a cross country cycling trip he was planning. He wanted to use only recycled materials and have them handmade, so he came to us, bringing a large schwinn tent from th' bike shop we both work at. Beth did most of th' work, i bent up some spokes for th' hangers, etc... All in all it was a lot of work, and Beth added some extras to th' package, like a handmade sewing kit and patches, which actually got used to sew up a slice in his tire. We charged him a very reasonable price, and when he came to pay us he gave us double the amount. Now, Toby doesn't make a lot of money, remember, he works at a bike shop. What we asked for was a big chunk of change for him, yet he still gave more than we asked for. It was a humbling experience. He clearly saw th' effort that went into those bags.
 Here they are on his bike, going across th' country, it's th' bike on th' right. (We lost all our pictures due to a computer crash so this is all we have left.)

I took a bowl turning class a with Jarrod StoneDahl in Wisconsin. He charged me what i felt to be a very reasonable price. I was able to give him a bit more than he asked for. (Which, if you're reading this Jarrod, you definitely earned.) I left with a lot more than i asked for. He gave much more than he took.

bowls turned on a spring pole lathe
Joel Delorme makes custom crafted knives, and likes to make replicas of ancient designs. I saw on his website one day that he had something called a "Foragers Sickle". What!? So, me working at a bike shop and it being winter at th' time, i asked him how much he'd sell one of those for, just to think about saving up for one. After all, what's a forager without a Foragers Sickle? Turns out it's a replica of a bronze age sickle found in Scotland, which to me is really important. I'm a big fan of ancient technology, and i believe that for th' most part, th' further back you go in history th' more advanced is th' skill in producing things used in day to day life. You can read more about this find on th' Bushcraft UK forum here. Joel wrote me back and said he'd trade me for some hand carved spoons. Ok, i said, that sounds like a good trade. Well, i got th' blade, and he got th' spoons, and we were both impressed, and wanted to go a little further, so we made another trade, a fork for a sheath and some sinew. When i got Joels' second package in th' mail, there was also a replica of a medieval carving knife in there, from th' twelth century, you can read about those on th' St. Thomas Guild blog, and on Joels blog. That little knife is fast becoming my favorite. I'll write more about it on our crafts blog, once i've had a chance to use it a bit more. Joel just sent me an email as i was writing this post, here's his thoughts on th' matter:

"As to making the blade and things for you. This is the reason why i do these things sometimes. I know we all need to make a living but sometimes it feels right to do things, not for money, but for making a connection with somebody, even if that somebody is thousands of miles away. In fact it's maybe more important. So much of what we hear about other countries is seen/heard through the filter of th media and through the vested interests of politicians. I think it's important to be able to talk to "ordinary" people and make friends that way." Amen Joel.

 Here's a picture of th' sickle blade (i'll be making th' handle), sheath, medieval carving knife, and sinew.

bronze age sickle and medieval carving knife, working replicas

Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge, makes some of th' finest carving knives i've ever had th' privilege of laying my eyes on, much less my hands. I use his knives and can literally feel th' countless hours of dedication that went into them- their design, and th' years he spent perfecting his craft, and his willingness to talk to and help out th' people who buy them. He sells them for so little i wonder how he can support himself and his family. Here's a picture of his sloyd knife and hook knife.

Pinewood Forge carving knives

Peter Vido started Scythe Connection in order to promote th' knowledge and use of th' scythe as a valid alternative to tractors and lawn mowers. There's much more to it than that simple statement, but check out his website to get it straight from th' horses mouth, so to speak. I ordered a scythe blade from Peter, he set me up with a really nice Italian made "Diamant" blade, it's like a sword that you cut grass with, and do you know what he wanted in payment? He asked me to make some spoons, what ever kind and how ever many i wanted, as a gift for a friend of his. He didn't even take payment. Here's that blade.

Italian made scythe blade.

But wait a minute, none of this makes any sense from an economic standpoint.
Joel earns part of his income selling his knives, and, like th' rest of us, has felt the impact of th' worldwide economic collapse. Economically speaking, his best choice would have been to sell that knife. But instead he chose to give it away.
 Economically speaking Jarrods best bet would have been to charge me way more than he did. But his time and knowledge are his own, and he chose to give them away.
Economically speaking Toby should have paid us what we asked him too, but he chose to double th' price.
Peter has told me that there've been times when they're so poor they can't even put gas in th' truck to go to town. So why is he trading scythe blades for gifts to other people?
Del could easily charge twice th' price for his knives and no one would even consider not paying it. 

Are these guys, and others who make similar choices going to end up poorer than those who don't? Are they less happy, do they feel th' crunch of a failing economy more because they keep giving away th' little that they have?
The answer to all those questions is a big fat NO. In fact, if we all had this attitude, there would not even be an "economy". People would simply do what they love to do, and would take care of each other. There is such a diversity amongst us all that if we all did what we love th' most, we would fill every need that people have.

Selfishness is not "sustainable". This word, along with "green", is thrown around so much these days that all meaning is lost. The only way this world is ever going to get better, and i think we all agree that it can, and needs too, is for us to give unceasingly, unselfishly, asking nothing in return, simply because that's what we love to do. We've met many people in our lives who've found what it is they love to do, what they were created for, and all those people do it not for themselves, but for anyone who will receive it.  They work night and day at their craft, skill, or what ever you want to call it. They continue on in prosperity and adversity. And i believe this is the only way out of our present mess- to find what ever it is that you love, and do it, no matter what th' cost. It will be worth it in the end.

The folk i have listed here are just a small sampling of people who've decided to live their lives in a way that inspires and encourages others- don't be afraid to add your own name to this list. We basically have two choices- one, in th' words of Ghandi, "Be th' change you want to see in th' world", or two, we write the epithath for the earth, in th' words of th' great humorist Kurt Vonnegut, "We could have saved th' world, but we were too damned cheap." I know which choice i'm going to make.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Maple update

So it seems as though our maple sugar experiments are over for this year. Th' weather across th' country just wasn't right for it this year, and i won't be surprised to see maple syrup prices go up quite a bit after this spring. Of course th' prices at whole foods market will most likely stay th' same, or only go up a dollar a quart- they're big enough to be able to do that. But, with that said, when you buy that cheap syrup, it comes from a forest looking something like this...

Now, without going into th' pro's (if there are any) and cons of hooking up all th' maple trees to an IV tube, and making th' forest resemble a hospital, which it should be the very antithesis of, it would be well to consider getting syrup from people who still know how to collect sap and boil it down using traditional methods. People who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents, etc... Sometimes this syrup will be more expensive, but what happens when all those folk are gone and somebody wants to learn to tap trees the old fashioned way? Well, there's no one left to ask, so we start all over at square one.
We've found a couple who still use real buckets, Dan and Adrienne Nelson, they haul 'em all in by hand and cart, and boil th' sap down into syrup. There's many out there, but we just happened upon these guys.  They actually sell their syrup for $40-$45 a gallon, nearly half th' price of th' cheap whole foods brand, with a $10 mailing fee, you're paying $50 a gallon. Their syrup forest looks like this

West View Sugar Bush
The owners are a nice couple, i called them on th' phone and talked to them a bit about their syrup, asked for a gallon, and they shipped it out to me. It's good syrup too, and all th' money is going directly to a family dedicated to preserving traditional ways of life, instead of being filtered through th' corporate system where workers make minimum wage and farmers sell their syrup for way too little. To purchase their syrup, Contact Dan at West View Sugar Bush, 715-564-2527, just call him up and ask him for some syrup like i did, he's a great guy. Thanks Dan.

One gallon of pure Wisconsin Maple Syrup

Ok, i think that about sums it up for now, i hope your spring is well, and packed full of many surprises and adventures.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Sweetwater and th' Gang Pt. 3 & 4

Once more th' night is cold, th' day warm. I've got ten taps and ten jugs. I take a drink of sap already collected and head out to th' woods for th' next phase of our sweetwater experiment. This time i'm alone. Th' forest, as always, imparts it's peace to me- a sort of gift, like going to a good friends house where there's a pot of tea waiting for you. I say thank-you.

Quietly, th' bit enters th' bark, presses on into th' sapwood.

Sap is flowing as i'm drilling, and before i even get a tap into th' hole, there's a little trail of sweet tears running down th' side of th' tree.

Granted it has no choice, but this tree is literally giving it's life blood to me. It'll be fine, it'll live, th' hole will close up and no one will ever notice, but still- i keep that in mind as i tap tap tap into these trees...

After last years floods, and th' three massive windstorms we had in th' last six months, th' piles of driftwood and greenwood out here are pretty impressive, and i enjoy them as i wander about from tree to tree.

With th' sap rising, and most of th' maple and box elders cracked and broken from th' top due to th' snows and wind, sap is actually dripping from th' trees as i walk around. I can hear it going drip drip drip onto th' dry leaves below.

sap running down tree trunk
After a slow meander, th' taps are set, th' jugs are hung. I feel mostly content, aside from th' fact that i don't like hanging plastic up in th' woods, even though i plan on taking them all home with me again. But that's all we had, though it would look much more beautiful to see those nice old tin buckets hanging up, blending into th' silver bark of th' maples. I've tapped twelve maples and one box elder, just to see how that one does.

silver maple, box elder, s. maple

box elder bark

I go home satisfied, and a couple of days later return with th' Lotz's to collect th' collectins. As usual, th' kids love it here, and go crazy, in a calm sort of way, exploring and romping about.

They head straight for th' river to throw stones, i head off to check th' taps.

Fynn and Nohea at th' waters edge

Judah's first taste of maple sap
It seems as though we're still a wee bit early on th' sap, as only th' box elder has really filled it's jug. And fill it it did, it's full, that's a whole gallon of sap, while th' maples still have only a small bit per jug in them, some of them none. Good thing i thought to try out a box elder.

But alas! What's this? A card on one of th' jugs. "If these are your jugs please call me", a natural areas ranger. "Well" i say, "we'd better take these down. I'll call th' ranger later and talk to him."
"It shouldn't be illegal," says Rachel, "it doesn't hurt th' trees."
"Yeah," i say, "but this is a natural area, and it does look a bit trashy. I wish we had those old fashioned buckets, or wooden ones, they'd blend right in."
"What if he wants to give you a ticket?" asks Beth.
"I'll take my chances" i tell her.
I set about removing th' jugs and taps, with th' help of a good stick and a friend of course.

After we empty th' jugs into our collection bucket, we've got about a gallon and a half, and one gallon of that's box elder, which to my mind is the inferior sap. But later i'll be proved wrong on that account. Th' box elder was still flowing after we pulled it, and as th' kids were playing around in th' woods, we caught Fynn actually licking th' tree. Oh it  made us laugh. Here he is with his tyrannosaurus standing by th' tree, we just missed him licking it with th' camera.

Th' kids played some more, and off we went to boil it down.

Th' Lotz's decided to take th' spoils home and put it on their woodstove to boil down. "We'll put it on in th' morning, and call you when it gets close to syrup." Rachel tells us.
"Sounds good." Beth replies.
Later that evening we get a phone call from Rachel, "You guys ready to come over, it's gettin close?"
"Ok," says Beth, "we'll be right there."
As soon as we get there Rachel greets us with a sheepish grin, "Sorry," she says, "it was getting pretty low so i took it off th' woodstove and put it in this cast iron skillet to watch it in th' kitchen. It was lookin fine one second, then when i looked at it again it was sugar!"
"Hey," i say "that's just as well to us. Have you guys tasted it yet?"
"Nope," Rachel says, "we were waiting for you."
"Well, lets dig in"

box elder sugar

go ahead, try some
"Wow," i say, "it tastes just like th' maple sugar you get from th' store. Only it's silver."
"That's good." says Beth.
"Would you like some maple candy." Fynn chimes in.
We all have some good lickins then package up th' rest to take home. After th' sap that we drank, we boiled down a gallon of it, and from that we got about a quarter of a pound of sugar. That's pretty good i'd say. If we actually got a gallon from each of our jugs, that's more than two pounds of sugar, all from a tree that's considered a weed.

I did call th' ranger and talk to him. He's a really kind person, and i enjoyed th' conversation we had, even though he did have to tell us that tapping trees is not allowed in natural areas. So we'll be on th' lookout for another location to try this again, maybe some private property where we have permission. Got any box elders where you live? There should be a little time to get some more, especially if we get snowed on again. But till then, we've all enjoyed this experiment immensely, and th' rewards have been mutli-fold. I'm exhausted from all this writing, here's a cup of sap for us to share. Bye.

box elder sap