Monday, September 10, 2012

The Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, another foraging journey

This year I was invited to give the Keynote address at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Prairie du Chien Wisconsin, near the confluence of the Wisconsin and the Mississippi rivers. Katrina and I foraged our way over the mountains and across the prairies, enjoyed three days of sharing food and knowledge at the festival, and then spent another three days collecting wild foods with my good friend Sam Thayer and his family before returning back to the Pacific Northwest.

Katrina and Kaz eating lunch
Dull Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)
Our trip started on a cool Sunday morning when we left Bellingham for Seattle. Katrina had made plans with her 7 year old nephew Kaz for a hiking adventure and when we picked him up his schoolbag was already packed with a sack lunch, water, and swimming gear. With an eye towards the clouds, we drove east from Seattle to Rattlesnake Ridge. Last week Katrina had taught Kaz how to eat Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and we were pleasantly surprised at his memory of the berries a week later, and his eagerness to find them. “They are the best thing ever!” he proclaimed with each mouthful. The clouds hung low around Rattlesnake Ridge but we struck out on the trail as quickly as a gaggle of grazers can.  Besides Salal, Trailing Blackberries (Rubus ursinus), Himalayan Blackberries (Rubus bifrons), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and the last of the Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus) were easily had. Kaz eagerly pointed out many other berries to ask if they could be eaten, and when he pointed at Dull Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa) my eyes crinkled into an acquiescing smile. Kaz plucked one off and popped it in his mouth. His face puckered and he quickly spit it out screaming, “sour!” Sour they certainly are, but I know that many young boys love sour things, so I urged him to try and appreciate their flavor more slowly, showing him how I suck on the berries one at a time, not chewing them at all. Kaz tried a few more as we worked our way up the mountainside, but I think he concluded that the shocking flavor jolt was more fun. The summit greeted us in a thick fog and since we were not warmly dressed, we hunkered down under a tree for lunch. With our bellies full, the berry bushes were less distracting on the way back down. Kaz’s bright eyed enthusiasm was heartwarming and we were sad to bid him goodbye and continue on our way. The next day we set a course eastward hoping to get into Idaho before sunset.

Purple-black fruit of Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii)
Interstate 90 took us to Spokane but we happily deviated from the highway to explore the south side of Lake Coeur d’Alene. We found a nice campground at Hawley’s Landing with enough daylight remaining to explore the plant life along the shoreline. Many Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) trees were heavily laden with ripe fruit so we picked a few handfuls to try. Hawthorn fruits are notoriously seedy and Black Hawthorn is no exception. However, the fruit pulp is smooth and mildly sweet with no disagreeable flavors. The seeds could easily be strained with a fruit mill rendering a pulp that I think would make a nice addition to fruit leathers but haven’t yet had a chance to try. Nearly all Native American groups with access to Black Hawthorn ate the fruit fresh or dried it for future use. The long spines were also used to make fish hooks and needles, the hard wood used for digging sticks, and many parts of the plants continue to serve important medicinal uses. Black Hawthorn grows well on forest edges and in old fields where the soil is wet. If the soil dries up during the summer, the fruit will shrivel prematurely on the tree as is the case with many of the Black Hawthorn trees I visited near Bellingham before we left.

The yellow-orange fruit of Hooker's Fairybell (Prosartes hookeri)
Below the Hawthorn we found a few Hooker’s Fairybell (Prosartes hookeri) with ripe fruit. There are only a few ethnobotanical records for the use of Fairybell fruit by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. The Nlakapamux (Thompson) in Southern British Columbia occasionally ate the fruit but it was considered poisonous by the Klallam. I cautiously tasted one and found the firm skin to have a rind-like texture with a flavor that was sweet but also very much like a vegetable. The closest comparison that I can think of is the unripe fruit of False Lily-of-the-Valley (Maianthemum dilatatum).

Wapato and Wild Rice at Heyburn State Park
To our surprise, the shallow waters around Heyburn State Park were filled with Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) and Wild Rice (Zizania palustris). Both plants were still flowering, so I knew it was too early to harvest them, but I was excited to learn about healthy populations in our region other than those on the lower Fraser and lower Columbia Rivers. Wapato (called sqigwts locally) was a staple root vegetable eaten by the Hnch’mchinmsh and other Coeur d’Alene Native Americans. According to park signage, the Hnch’mchinmsh continue to celebrate an annual Wapato Harvest Day. The ethnobotanical history and provenance of the wild rice population, however, is unclear. Duck hunters evidently seeded Wild Rice in many areas throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Civilian Conservation Corps seeded the Lake Coeur d’Alene area in the 1930s. However, there are herbarium records from the area that predate the CCC. I am exploring the idea that it may have been planted by Native Americans sometime around the turn of the 20th century and aim to write more about my progress with this research in the near future.

5 Acres of Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) at Heyburn State Park

In the fading light we spread out our bedrolls and settled into the quiet night and dry air. The next morning the sun rose gloriously over the rice bed and our camp, stirring our souls to life and beckoning us out of our sleeping bags.

The delicious fruit of Wild Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
Skirting along the southern edge of Benewah Lake, we drove eastward on State Highway #5 and then followed the St. Joe River into the St. Joe and Bitterroot mountains. We poked along casually, inspecting the ripeness of roadside Blue Elderberries (Sambucus cerulea), noting other Wapato patches, and getting our first tastes of Wild Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus). These raspberries are precious morsels that are slightly more flavorful than our Black Raspberry (Rubus leucodermis) with more sweetness and a hint of tartness, almost exactly like our cultivated Red Raspberries, but smaller. Found mainly east of the Cascades and Coast Range, these berries are universally enjoyed by those who know them.

Leaf variation in Wild Red Raspberry

Joining back with Interstate 90 at St. Regis we made our way along the Clark Fork to the Yellowstone River. There we turned south and found a free campsite along the river a few miles from Yellowstone National Park.  Graced with another night to find sleep under the stars, we were startled awake in the depth of night by booming thunder and flashes of lightning, but the heavens spared us from rain and we simply enjoyed the show through tired eyes.

Nice clusters of Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana)
The next morning we harvested half a gallon of Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) and spread them on a towel under the rear windshield to dry in the sun. Many Chokecherries are very astringent when eaten fresh, making your teeth and tongue feel like they are covered with fur, and fresh Chokecherry flavor varies greatly from tree to tree, tending to improve later in the season. Those who are willing to process their cherries can render even the most astringent berries perfectly palatable by cooking, drying, or even freezing them. A few select fruit mills will do a nice job of separating the cooked pulp from the pits and the pulp can then be used to make excellent pies, jellies, and fruit leather. Some Native Americans preserved substantial quantities of Chokecherries by pounding them—pits and all—in a mortar, and then sun drying the resulting mash. While fresh cherry pits contain high levels of toxic hydrocyanic acid, sun drying destroys this chemical. Our campsite also had numerous Three-leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata) bushes with ripe berries. The small red fruits have sour dry skin, large seeds, and like other Sumacs, can be steeped to make a beverage similar to lemonade. The Ute and Kiowa also cooked and ate the berries.
Three-leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata)

Wax Currant (Ribes cereum)
Creeping Oregon-Grape
Entering Yellowstone from the north entrance, we drove through some beautiful rocky dry forests with an abundance of fruiting shrubs. Wax Currants (Ribes cereum) and Creeping Oregon-grape (Mahonia repens) were fruiting heavily and a few red fruits could still be found on the Soapberry (Sheperdia canadensis) bushes. After seeing Wax Currant and Creeping Oregon-Grape flowering for the first time during our spring road trip to Colorado, we finally got to eat the fruit. Both species of fruit were never eaten in large quantities by Native Americans, so I didn’t expect them to have great flavor. I found the Wax Currants to have a thick viscid texture and neutral to slightly sweet taste. In my opinion, they have better flavor (at least straight off the bush) than the Soapberries (Sheperdia canadensis) that they were growing next to, and Soapberries are highly regarded by many Native Americans. The Creeping Oregon Grape tasted very similar to our coastal species.

Wild Bison ranging the prairie
Deeper into the park we caught our first glimpse of what is to me, the most significant feature of Yellowstone -- the Bison herds. Bison once roamed the Great Plains in vast numbers (roughly 30-60 millions before 1800) until they were hunted to near extinction by market hunters after their meat and skins. Bison leather belts were important during the industrial revolution to transfer power between pieces of machinery. Cattle ranchers also condemned Bison for their competition over pasture resources and at least a couple Commanders in Chief turned a blind eye to the approaching doom of what was once the world’s most abundant large animal, in order to force onto Reservations the Native Americans who relied on Bison as a staff of life. President Grant event went so far as to pocket veto a congressional act that would have protected the Bison before their numbers dipped so low that individuals like Buffalo Bill’s wife and a few concerned ranchers started protecting herds with their own resources. The irony of it all is that Bison are a keystone species in a food-producing ecosystem that is more resilient than any of the agricultural systems that have replaced them. As a native species, Bison are better adapted to the arid and drought-prone conditions in many parts of the Great Plains. Furthermore, Bison are associated with a number of other edible species such as Pronghorn Antelope, Prairie Dogs, Prairie Turnip, (Psoralea esculenta), American Groundnut (Apios americana), Biscuitroot (Lomatium spp.) and many others (See Bison Nation for further discussion of the food potential of this amazing biome). Native Americans managed the Great Plains with prescribed fire in a manner that improved the pasture conditions for Bison and the retinue of edible life associated with them. Today, wild Great Plains Bison herds have recovered to roughly 30,000 animals (1/10th of a percent of their pre-market hunt populations). In parcels that are too small to accommodate any more herd growth, carefully managed hunts allow for a sustainable supply of meat. Many ranchers also maintain herds of bison for meat production and private herds account for 500,000 animals. I can just imagine cooperatives of farmers that take down their fences and manage thousands of square miles of native grasslands for free range bison. Such meat I would feel good about eating!

Pronghorn Antelope grazing in the twilight
From Yellowstone we wove our way down through the majestic white rocked canyons and dry forests of Shoshone country and out of the mountains into the grasslands. As earthen shadows stretched eastward and the golden hues of grass melted into the surreal colors of sunset, herds of antelope surrounded the roadsides, slowing our pace. Darkness enveloped our car and we crept along the quiet county roads with the windows down, gulping in the latent light on the cooling summer air. We found our way to Keyhole State Park and quickly fell asleep among a grove of lakeside pines. Thunder again groaned to the depths of our dreams, but only a few drops were spilled on our naked cheeks as we slept under the eye of heaven.

Rivers of corn and islands of forest -- both novel to the prairies.
Our pace quickened the following day as we pressed across the endless farmscape of South Dakota and into Minnesota. In southeastern Minnesota, the farmland began to mix with forests in a novel mosaic pattern. Prior to contact, this area was predominantly prairie but fire suppression has allowed trees to fill in on the hill tops around the farms. We camped at Forestville State Park and were not so lucky in our tent-less camping. Thunderstorms came in waves starting around midnight and kept us moving between the our ground sheet, the car, underneath our ground sheet, and finally—when the thunder was practically on top of us—a nearby picnic shelter. Though our sleeping bags were already sodden, we enjoyed the warm night and delighted in the subsequent torrents of rain that we avoided.

Wapato, Lotus, and Wild Rice all in one place!
The next day we were due to arrive at Prairie Du Chien for the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, so we hustled through the rest of Minnesota and crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. Our progress was immediately halted by the abundance of Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia), Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), Cattail (Typha latifolia) and Southern Wild Rice (Zizania aquatica) which grow along the Mississippi River sloughs. Combined with the many edible nut-producing species of Oaks (Quercus spp.), Hickories (Carya spp.), Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), Walnuts and Butternuts (Juglans spp.), this region is surely one of the most carbohydrate-rich areas in the world.

After traveling across half of the continent, we finally arrived at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival. My mind was spinning over the incredible potential of our continent's natural heritage, were it only managed for native food-producing ecosystems. The conference started with a fantastic wild food potluck to prepare our palette for the weekend, and remind us of the true flavor of our land. After dinner, I had been invited to give the keynote address so I shared a little of the life story of my mentor, Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla) as a means of portraying the multitude of food resources that were carefully managed by the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) and other Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. I spoke in detail about carefully tended estuarine salt marsh root gardens, clam gardens, and a variety of fisheries.

Harvesting Lotus tubers
Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
The next two days were filled with plant walks and workshops. We made sumac (Rhus glabra) lemonade, picked and ate Hackberries (Celtis occidentalis), Black cherries (Prunus pensylvanica), Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata), Wild Grapes (Vitis sp.), and even got to see a Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). For me the most memorable event was a field trip to the Mississippi River led by Sam Thayer on the final morning of the conference. Sam showed us how to dig up Lotus roots by following the rhizome under the mud until it leads to a tuber. Our native Lotus is virtually identical to those cultivated in China, except the flowers are light yellow instead of pink. When picking the tubers, care should be taken to avoid exposing the inside to the muddy water by breaking the rhizome several inches in front of the tuber so that the entire tuber will stay intact. If mud should find its way into the large inner pores of a lotus tuber, we discovered that a pipe cleaner is an indispensable tool for scrubbing the mud out. At this time of the year, the tubers are still growing and have a much sweeter taste than they do after they have fully matured. Lotus tubers can be eaten raw, sautéed, steamed, or cut and dried for later use.
Peeled and chopped, lotus tubers look like ox-cart wheels but taste much better.

Sam returning from a long day of ricing with several full bags of rice
 After the conference, Katrina and I joined Sam and his wife Melissa for a few days of late summer foraging. We harvested Northern Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) in the traditional Ojibwa manner using a canoe propelled by a long pole and two thin cedar “knockers” to bend the rice over the gunwale and brush the Rice into the canoe. While one person “knocks” the Rice, the other person is responsible for “poling” (actually pushing with a long pole) the canoe through the Rice bed in long parallel courses that are about 5 feet part. Between our two canoes, we harvested about 200 lbs of green Rice in two days, which should yield about 100 lbs of finished Wild Rice. We spread the Rice out to dry in the sun on tarps and then Sam took it to a processing facility where the Rice will be parched briefly to make the grain hulls brittle. The grain will then get rubbed by a machine until the hulls break off. Traditionally, Rice hulls are rubbed off by moccasin-clad “dancers” who gently shuffle their feet across rice placed in a in a leather-lined pit. Once the hulls are broken, they can then be winnowed away by pouring the Rice from one container to another on a windy day.

Sam and Melissa with Rice from a few hours of knocking

200 lbs of Wild Rice drying in the sun
All the Rice from a particular plant does not ripen at the same time so a particular ricing location can be harvested a few times over the course of a season. In Wisconsin, state law mandates that Rice must be harvested using traditional equipment and there are rules concerning the width of your canoe and length of your Rice knockers. For lakes and rivers that are regulated, a Ricing Chief determines when the rice is ready to be harvested and posts an opening notice. The traditional method of knocking rice ensures that enough grain falls into the water to reseed the population. It doesn’t take much, as one Rice plant may have as many as 50 stalks, which can each hold as many as 100 grains of rice (a 1:5000 ratio!). Not only is Wild Rice prolific, it is amazingly large. It is larger than almost every kind of domesticated rice (Oryza spp.) and larger than any other native wild grain in North America except for River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea).

On our way home from our second day of ricing we decided to hunt for some American Hazelnuts (Corylus americana). We found a sunny forest edge with an abundance of Hazelnut trees and got out to inspect the trees. Many of the leaves were dried up, and the first nuts I inspected were in husks that were completely dry, with nuts that had been eaten by weevils. Parasitized nuts dry up sooner than good nuts because the tree cuts off resources to the nut as soon as it detects an infection. Many of the trees that I first inspected had only a few nuts that were mostly parasitized. Hazelnut trees actually grow in large clones, connected by underground roots, so the properties of one tree are virtually identical to the one next to it. Sam encouraged us to keep moving until we found a more productive clone. It didn’t take 5 minutes of searching before we were in Hazel heaven and we quickly filled our bushel-sized gunnysacks with large clusters of Hazelnuts. I was blown away by the abundance of Hazelnuts. Each small tree stem (no more than 8 feet tall) had 5-10 clusters of 3-9 nuts and the stems were so close together, that you had to swim to pass through the clones. However, Sam said that he has seen places with trees so laden with nuts that they were laying on the ground! In about an hour we harvested three bushels of Hazelnuts and tried to find room for them amongst a car that was overflowing with Rice.

Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)
We also saw a few Beaked Hazelnuts (Corylus cornuta) but didn’t pick many since we didn’t have gloves. The husks are filled with fine hairs that embed in your fingers and are difficult to remove. Russ Lake, a foraging friend that I met at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, said that a young boy taught him to rub his hands through his hair to get Beaked Hazel hairs off his fingers. I found this method to work pretty well. American Hazelnut husks also have hairs, but they are not nearly as abundant and are too weak to penetrate the skin. Furthermore, they have a fantastic sweet resinous aroma, reminiscent of Sumac fruit.

Back at Sam’s house, we spread the nuts out to dry in his attack. Once the husks are dry and brittle, he will stomp on them to break them up, and then separate the husks by hand. The nuts can be quickly cracked with a Davebuilt Nutcracker, making them virtually as easy to process as larger domesticated hazelnuts. The nuts are delicious whole but Sam grinds them up and simmers the mash in water to make an absolutely divine Hazelnut milk that he strains and flavors with a splash of maple syrup and a pinch of cinnamon.

Our trip to the Midwest was truly filled with bounty and we were sad to say goodbye to Sam and his wonderful family. Ever since I met Sam 14 years ago, he has inspired me to connect with the earth in a profound way: to find beauty in the smallest salamander, sustenance in nature’s garden, and community in the sharing of food. Half a continent apart, our visits have become less frequent, but I like to think that we continue to walk on the same path -- only different parts.

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