Thursday, November 19, 2009

Forage's End

It was another warm and gentle late fall day, November bringing us what we expected from October--a kind and lulling Indian Summer glow, but more somber, because the angle of the sun was that much lower, the woods that much grayer. I spent the morning gathering firewood, another kind of foraging.

I have discovered that gathering firewood may be the task for which I am best suited in life--it is among the most simply satisfying things I have ever done. I trudge up and down the hills with my trusty chainsaw, working at a measured pace. I'm not felling big trees, which is dangerous, especially with a couple of dogs running around, but harvesting down logs and branches, cutting the dead low limbs of oak trees. The odd small dead tree, shed of bark, not yet rotting, I will drop. A small oak like this, that lost the race to the sun to other trees, now fully air-cured, makes the best kind of firewood. I make a point of leaving larger dead trees standing, as homes for cavity-nesting birds.

I'll amass a cache of wood in a certain section of the woods, then gradually haul it back to the cabin in our little black metal cart or the black plastic ice fishing sled. I go from lumberjack to beast of burden. It is a full-body workout, and the steepest part of the journey is just before I reach the cabin, providing a test of will as well as strength--can I push on those last fifty feet, can I. Now I must dodge fallen apples, too, from the trees that overhang the path here, or take a very painful and discouraging spill.

I split the larger logs in the driveway at the cabin. I also bring back apple branches from last winter's pruning, now nicely dried, and reduce these to kindling. I gather these smaller sticks into faggots (not a word you hear often in a positive sense these days), ready to be popped into the woodstove (faggots for Haggis!) when we need fast heat.

As I watch my wood rack filling up with logs and kindling, my mind travels ahead to the next season: the cabin swaddled in snow, a well-laid fire in the woodstove springing into flame with one match, the cabin quickly warming, a savory pot set to simmer on top of the stove.

Our property comprises twenty acres but if you flattened it out we'd have forty. A few hours traversing of the hills, especially burdened with firewood, tuckers me out. My morning's work had left the woodrack much fuller than when I arrived; I felt I had done right by Bide-A-Wee, and earned a rest. But I found I still wanted to be outside and doing something, just working at a gentler pace. I remembered a big burdock plant that I had spied earlier in the summer, growing just beside the driveway. Burdock root is edible and pretty good when cooked properly. This plant had leaves as big a rhubarb leaves (the two plants are, in fact, related). I figured it would give up a decent root.

And so it did--a decent, but very odd, root. Burdock usually sends its long taproot pretty straight downward, often a couple of feet down. It takes some careful digging to extract intact. This plant was growing in particularly heavy clay, with impervious packed gravel not far below, and so compensated by multi-furcating, sending roots of different sizes off in different directions. I had to check the leaves, now frost-wilted, to be sure it was actually burdock.

Back at the cabin I cleaned up and peeled a portion of it, cut it up and set it to cook.

Then I went out to gather a few of the last apples still clinging to the trees, a sort of sentimental, ceremonial act to end the fruit season. I had no particular need for the eight or nine apples I snatched from the high bare branches with the apple picker. We have boxes of apples at home. The ground around the late-ripening trees is covered with fallen apples, but we leave those lie. The deer and grouse and probably any number of other woodland creatures nibble at them.

All summer long I had meant to make tea from blackberry leaves. In full procrastination mode, I let that activity slide until all but, let's see, eight leaves remained on the dark canes. We started with forty bazillion blackberry leaves; there should have been something special about the eight that remained.

I boiled some water and brewed up the leaves in the nifty new Japanese teapot--cast iron with an enamel interior--that I got for my birthday. The tea had a distinctive flavor--a little herby, more generally vegetal, a bit savory like nettles tea. It won't replace a good jasmine, sencha, or orange pekoe, for me. I suspect that it is reputed to be
good for you.

About this time I noticed a certain...lethargy, I'd call it, in my foraging. There was a quality of going through the motions, of doing this because the stuff was there, because I could. I recognized this not with annoyance, but simply with curiosity. I thought, well, that's an okay reason to do it. But I did have to wonder why I bothered with some dirty root from a noxious weed, when at home I still had lots of produce in the garden--leeks and carrots, beets, turnips and kale, fennel, chard, cabbage--as well as squash, celery root, potatoes and more from garden and market, stored in the garage.

It was just, as I say, curious. Maybe I just wanted to see what was under the ground.

Kicking through fallen apples and dried leaves, feeling a slight chill even in the bright sun, the calm air, I felt the sense of the season sink in, and then my mind traveled two ways--ahead to the winter that could descend any day now, lock in tight, white and cold until March; back to the abundant harvests and forages that had reached their peak just a few fleeting weeks ago. I thought of baskets of brilliant chanterelles, streams full of eager brook trout, the apple trees so laden the limbs drooped to the ground; I thought of the day I gathered a stunning still life of close to a dozen different wild fruits. This is not hyperbole in the service of nostalgia for a time long lost; this was the way it was, not long ago, at all.

Now, mealy haws, some shriveled grapes (yet now at their sweetest), these last apples.

I guess I was ready for the change, but missing already what was barely past. Held between the two as if trapped in amber the color of the late afternoon sun. I might still find a variety of wild foods before the snows come. Indeed, one December day a few years ago, hunting in the snow, I happened upon a hen of the woods mushroom, frozen but otherwise fresh-looking. I took it home (this "hen" the only "fowl" in my game pocket that day), thawed it, enjoyed that big 'shroom over several meals. I could find butternuts, black walnuts, nannyberries. I might dig another burdock root before the ground freezes hard, or go looking for jerusalem artichokes. I might not. I know it's coming to an end, coming to a change. I'm good with that.

I simmered the burdock with in soy sauce, rice wine, and maple syrup, with a little chili and chopped leek. I made an apple "kimchi" based on an idea from David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar restaurant in New York (we had lunch there on a recent trip). We're going to have those dishes tonight alongside soup noodles. I'll pass along the recipes if they're any good.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


Teresa55419 said...

My heaven, I have never even HEARD of a burdock root so ginormous, much less seen a photo of one. What an unruly-looking beast. Enjoyed your musings about November ramblings; I feel some of the same melancholy during these unusually nice November days.


Trout Caviar said...

Hi Teresa: Yes, as I said, I was a little dumbfounded myself. I've dug up roots with maybe one or two minor side roots, nothing like this gnarly octopod. That clay soil of ours, though heavy, is apparently quite fertile for the plants that can hack it. Cheers~ Brett