Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tread Lightly

“The world is not your private garbage can!”-Barbara Smith (My Mom), Chief of Litter Police.
It was last Fall and my Mom and I arrived at a favorite mushroom hunting patch on the North Coast armed with baskets and optimism. We were early in the season so we knew to expect not to see a full fledged fungi explosion, but we were confident that we could find some tasty morsels in the tan oak and Douglas fir leaf litter.
The cool misty air was welcoming and our footsteps were silent on the moist ground. We joked and laughed as we walked, stopping now and then to pick a few hedgehogs and winter chantrelles. After some time we spied an alder log next to a little brook about 100ft below us in a shady wooded canyon. Slipping and sliding down the muddy deer trail to the banks of the spring, we could tell that the fungi on the log that we had seen from afar were indeed oyster mushrooms. I had passed these up year after year until recently when my Brother introduced them to me. Now I couldn’t seem to get enough of their subtle flavor and delicate texture. My Mom and I stooped over the log and cut only the freshest of the bounty for our baskets. Taking a moment to breath the fresh forest air, we marveled at the beams of sunlight filtering in through the canopy, and the sound of the sweet melody coming from the cascading riffles of the babbling brook. It was a nice moment to reflect on just why we love these wild places so much.

Almost back to the car we came upon a pile of empty bottles and some trash. My Mom shook her head in disapproval and suggested we consolidate our mushrooms into one basket and fill the other with this physical manifestation of lazy selfishness. We did so, bringing natural beauty back to this space in the forest, and I was reminded of some other times…

Recently I was working in a beautiful National Park as part of an ecological restoration project. On the trail to the work site I came across a Nature Valley granola bar wrapper wedged in the crotch of a tree. “Sure,” I said aloud wishing the litterbug was still here, “come to Nature Valley, enjoy the pristine beauty and leave your crap behind!” I am truly baffled by the lack of respect some have for the natural world around them. I guess it must just boil down to how they were raised.

On another recent trip, a group of us were being interviewed on a video depicting our “unique connection with nature.” The cinematographer had given us some plastic water bottles as we got out of the ocean with our fish. Once the camera was ready to film, the cinematographer realized the labels on the bottles would distract viewers from the fish and crustaceans we were describing. She peeled off the labels, got back in position and casually threw them on the sand, which promptly blew down the beach in the wind. I walked out of the frame which made her scowl, grabbed the labels, walked back over and put them in her hand. With a serious tone that implied she ought to know better, I said “I think you dropped these.” She realized the error in her judgement though she was a bit too embarrassed to say anything before we finally got the shot.
Years back (this is my favorite litter-related story and clearly where I get my leave-no-trace-behind mentality) my Mom and I were driving home through the orchards and vineyards. A car full of teens sped down this country road ahead of us throwing burger wrappers, cups, and bags out of their window for at least a mile. My Mom’s blood was boiling! They stopped at a driveway a mere half mile from our house and my Mom followed. Stopping the car, she rolled down the window, hung her head out and hollered. “I’ve watched you throwing trash out the window the whole way here. This is my road! The world is not your private garbage can! I have your license plate number and I will be back down this road in 10 minutes. I better not see a single piece of garbage, or I’m calling the cops!” The teens shrank until nearly disappearing before our eyes. 10 minutes later, the whole road was immaculately clean!
Massive respect to all the spearfishing clubs, beach stewards, etc. who organize events aimed at picking up after the lazy and ignorant and leave the natural world just a little cleaner than they found it! Go beyond the title of this post. Don’t just tread lightly, lead by example!Pick up that trash even if you weren’t the one who left it there. Others will see and think twice, or follow in your footsteps. Make your kids do their own dishes and clean their own rooms. I hated doing it as a kid, but I am very grateful for that now as it certainly made me think twice about what I was dropping on the ground. To all those who say we should send spacecrafts out to find a new planet because we’re trashing this one…I say, STOP TRASHING IT! I like our Earth, so do you, so lets work together so our grandchildren will too! Keep it clean, be green, forage locally, think globally, battle the insanity by living sensibly, value sustainability, help make a better tomorrow, today’s reality! Keep the old ways alive!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Avocado Harvest and Bacon "Clam" Chowder on the Beach

The local conditions were forecast to be pounding surf, so Nicholas and I decided to head up to the Santa Barbara coast. The swell there was supposed to be a minimal 1-2ft at seven seconds and we figured it could be a good day to locate some Pismo clams and make up a pot of chowder on the beach. That’s where our story begins…
The Pismo clam (Tivela stultorum) was once a major recreational fishery enjoyed by thousands along southern California’s beaches. In the 1960’s it was commonplace to see families by the hundreds  headed out to Newport, Santa Monica, or any other sandy strands, armed with pitchforks and buckets in anticipation of the bounties of a solid low tide.
During the early 1990’s however, a massive set of El Niño storms came through eroding sea cliffs and scouring out the beaches. This onslaught of high wave action destroyed the habitat that is vital for rearing juvenile Pismos, and as a result the once prolific bivalve and its associated traditional recreational fishery were destroyed for decades. A handful of bivalve enthusiasts however, have been monitoring the health and reemergence of Pismos in the region and it is my pleasure to announce that I have seen them in great numbers at select localities…especially the juveniles! Though nowhere near as abundant as they once were, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has examined their survey data and determined that a recreational 10 per day take would allow the current breeding population to be sustainable.
As we made our way in the rusty old Honda Civic Foragemobile we agreed that in light of all that the Pismos had gone through over the years, we would only take half limits if given the chance. We still needed a few ingredients for the chowder, so we took a side road into a well forested canyon and began looking for the right ecological niche. In a tall riparian corridor we found the bay leaves we needed for flavoring the soup base. On the sunny slopes in disturbed ground we found wild fennel and under the shade of an old oak we gathered a pair of nasturtium blooms, which are as deliciously spicy as they are beautiful for a garnish.

When we arrived at our freediving destination, we'll call it Sandy Cove to protect its locality, we remembered that it was memorial day weekend. Droves of beach towels, umbrellas, barbecues and bikini's lined the beach. We got a good laugh and a lot of looks as we marched our camouflaged wetsuits through the crowd to the water's edge. The swell was far from calm and I remarked to Nicholas that "This was going to require a lot of duck diving and hard kicking to get through those waves!" We made it out past the whitewater and large swells and took a break laughing and panting from the workout and then descended into the abyss. We both soon realized that this spot was not going to work out. After literally bumping our chins along on the sandy sea floor and still unable to see the bottom we attempted a little braille diving. Realizing that there was no way we were going to locate and retain clams by feel we made the call and kicked in...well half way, then we dropped in on a few nice waves and rode them all the way to shore on the Banksboard.
After another exhausted laugh we marched back through the crowd, got back in the car (still in our suits) and headed up to the next cove which looked calmer and clearer.

A short half mile hike to the sea shore and a quick kick out yielded similar water clarity! I did get a whole 1ft of visibility in the shallows however, but scanning the sea floor as much as I did, no clams were found. Returning to shore, Nicholas and I made our way to a pair of avocado trees my good buddy Lucas (the man who got me into urban foraging) had once showed me. These trees were no doubt remnants of an old orchard, later re-zoned and built up into a housing tract. Here, a few trees that did not quite fit into the plan were left undisturbed outside the boundaries of property lines in no man's land...or should I say in forager's land?

We climbed into the canopy and gathered as much fruit as we knew we could use. Taking great care and time to pick the very best avocados we could reach. The crop was abundant and our score made us feel a bit better about the lack of clams. So we headed back down the tracks from our secret trees and down the coast to enjoy the spoils of today's foraging.

We got the grill going at a nice still cove and watched waves crash on the shore as the sun set and our chowder cooked. With the last of my homemade fish stock, home made sea salt, bacon ends, potatoes, cream, wildcrafted herbs, and spices from the shelves back home we let the soup simmer. And with visions of guacamole in a few weeks when the avocados ripened, we served up our feast in abalone shells I had dove for in the north, adorned with nasturtium blooms and feasted on the best bacon "clam" chowder we've ever had!

All in all, even our "failure" with the clams resulted in a hugely successful adventure. This was a day we will not soon forget. Keep the old ways alive!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ode to the Ancestors

My grandparents were some of the greatest human beings I have known.
This post is in honor of them and all those in my bloodline who came before them.

I see your faces in the trees,
I hear your voices on the breeze,
I feel your spirit in the seas,
and I know you're always watching over me.
It is for you that I am named,
and through I you live again.
Remember those who lived before you.
Stretching back beyond the days of old.
It is because of their strength that you live and breathe today.
It is due of their guidance that we find our way.
Many would have you think, that to live is in only a moment, one eye's wink,
but beyond the world we see,
existed a vast expanse of time in our ancestry.
It matters not who you are or where you're from,
your ancestors were great, and you are their sum.
In traditional cultures world wide,
we see that in the old spirits folks of today confide.
So this is my reminder to friends, foes, and kin,
we must honor our ancestors here once again.
Regardless of your sex, age, or position,
Speak the praises of ancestors, and don't forget to listen.
They are here with us in dream and daylight,
they are here in sun's rays and in the moon's light.
In those times of our greatest need,
if you ask, they will surely lead.
but beyond just an occasional petitionary prayer,
always honor them, for the ancestors are always there!
Keep the old ways alive.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Positive Identification: A Cautionary Tale

“Hello Nightshade, you clever bastard!”- Me, realizing that the delicious “lambsquarter” sprout I was examining was actually a poisonous look-alike.

Spend any serious time in the foraging community, or speaking with fungiphobic city dwellers, and you’re sure to hear a tale or two of misidentified wild foods and the poor souls who did not live to talk about it. A friend of mine made this mistake with a deadly Satin’s Bolete, thinking it to be a King Bolete, and poisoned himself and his roommates by ignoring the signs…luckily they made it to the hospital and survived…though they were at 40% kidney function when they reached the E.R. Positive identification is the subject of today’s post.

As I mentioned before in my Lambsquarter omelet post, lambsquarter among many other wild foods can be confused with poisonous plants if one ignores the details. I had not tasted lambsquarter until this year, but had always been curious. This season I was intent on trying this wild and abundant edible, but first that meant hitting the books. A good forager is sort of a nerd in ways; start us talking about ecology, niches, seasonal abundance, botany, etc. and it’s hard for us to stop. This is because good foragers are typically very well read. It doesn’t matter if you are a professor of mycology or a ditch digger who loves wild foods, if you are a good forager you clearly also love to learn. I am a visual learner in many ways and so much of what I know has come through experience with wild edibles in the field, but just as important has been examining countless photos and of course reading…even between the lines. Before harvesting lambsquarter I perused dozens of photos of the plant in several stages of development, looked up how to prepare it (and if there were techniques that were necessary to make it edible or palatable), habitat and distribution, and most importantly the look-alikes. The lambsquarter omelet was fantastic!

Yesterday I saw one of these plants going to seed which sparked my curiosity pertaining to the edibility of the seeds. Again I perused the interweb, but what I found gave me chills. The seeds are edible, however when cross checking my references I came across a post of a new forager who had “a lambsquarter plant” and was asking how to “extract the seeds from the black berries on it.” My jaw dropped as I franticly read the first response fearing I was too late, luckily someone had already commented “Lambsquarter doesn’t have berries. YOU’RE ABOUT TO EAT NIGHTSHADE!!!!” I have seen black nightshade that, before its distinctive white flowers and dark berries are present, looks very similar to lamsquarter, but the rule I live by (maybe why I am still living) is check it twice in the field and once more in the kitchen. It turns out that black nightshade berries are edible, but can easily be confused with deadly nightshade, especially if one has not seen the color and shape of the blooms that preceded the fruit.

Black Nightshade


Countless times when foraging with newbies I have found mushrooms in the basket of varieties I am not familiar with that happened to look very much like the hedgehogs we were pursuing. It was only by checking under the cap in the kitchen as we cleaned our bounties that I saw the gills in time to discard these imposters. Educating ourselves on the dangers associated with any wild harvest, even beyond plants and fungi, is the difference between life and death. If you want to give your money to the local tribe (hopefully some makes its way into the schools), go ahead and hit the casino, but NEVER gamble with your life!

Several times I have had to stop folks from harvesting and cooking tasty mussels in the middle of summer quarantine. Bivalves such as these, filter-feed on natural plankton which in the summer months bloom in such large quantities that certain groups containing the toxin domoic acid become a primary food source for these shellfish. As a result if you eat a mussel or clam in June, you may be ingesting a concentrated dose that can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and send you to the hospital…if you’re one of the lucky ones. All it takes is checking the county department of health’s website to see if bivalves are in quarantine, and you know if it is safe to proceed or not.

A Sign That Should NOT Go Ignored!

Delicious Feast for the colder months...
but those bivalves can be deadly in the warm months!

The long and short of my rant is this…don’t be dumb and dead, be smart and enjoy a one-of-a-kind forager feast with friends and family instead! Always be proactive in educating yourself on the wild foods you seek, some require special cooking or preparation, some are toxic in key seasons, some areas are more likely to be polluted, and some have dangerous if not deadly look-alikes. Finally, if you are now too scared to forage and just want to play it safe, know this… last year I told the produce manager at a local Whole Foods that if he valued his job he’d better get all the cilantro off the shelf in the next few minutes. At least five bundles were bunched up with deadly nightshade…bottom line…KNOW YOUR WILD EDIBLES AND ALSO KNOW YOUR HAZZARDS!!!! Keep the old ways alive! –Kevin Smith

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fire by Friction

"Before you leave southern California, you gotta teach me friction fire!"-Nicholas

Well, upon request, after working on my thesis all day, Nicholas and I spent a few hours relaxing with rocks and sticks. 

Nicholas used a chert drill and sandstone abrader to shape a steatite (soapstone) socket...

A rhyolite flake to cut a wedge and bore out a depression in some well seasoned elder wood for a hearth board...

and set to work with a black willow bow and sycamore spindle over a sycamore leaf.

I was surprised at how quickly he picked up the technique. He had his first coal in less than half an hour, a feet that took me the better part of a month!

After allowing the ember to grow, and helping it along with a sprinkle of dried mugwort leaves and shredded paper wasp nest, he carefully guided this little gift of the wood down into a bed of shredded elder bark, pine needles, yucca heart, more mugwort leaves, and wasp nest seated in a scallop shell from one of our previous freedive-spearfishing trips.

Using both direct breath and indirect through a river cane straw we fashioned in a few seconds on the spot, he and I took turns breathing life into the bundle.

And as the tinder ignited there was a morale booster like no other flickering in the warm flames before our eyes. If magic exists in the world, summoning a coal from sticks is most certainly it! The bow drill and similar techniques were known to our ancestors world wide. They practiced such methods every week, and I can assure you that when you take part in a tradition like this, your bridge to the ancient past and the natural environment around you is strengthened in a way no words can describe!

We did cheat a little time nylon string will be replaced with twined plant fiber cordage so that every component of our kit will consist of materials foraged from California's wild side.
He got the technique down so well he went home and did it again!

Keep the old ways alive!