Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Field Report: In Ramp Woods

"Say something once, why say it again?," goes the line from the Talking Heads song, but it's just that pull of the eternal return that compels the forager, the gardener, that perennial gyre that sets our annual rhythms, brings us round as it carries us onwards, or upwards or--wherever it is that time is taking us.  Anything novel is set within the context of the same-old, same-old, another winter melts into spring, sap rises, buds break, leaves unfold, and the warming soil--but barely, still a cold, cold bed for the warm of blood--alerts dormant roots that it's time to renew the age-old cycle.  Annie Dillard, among others, found both beauty and horror in nature's tireless circles--hope and inspiration in seasonal rebirth, despair at the mindlessness of it all, the profligacy of overripe fecundity, the plain unmitigated waste of life and matter.  Here it comes again.  A la Beckett:  I can't go on.  I'll go on.

The ramps are up in near north Wisconsin, crazy early, and the whack-a-doodle climatic shenanigans continue.  After a warm and muggy afternoon that gave us hailstorms, lightning and downpours, tornado warnings, we awoke to:  snow.  Clouds of snow gusted down our valley much of the morning, only finding purchase on car windows, twigs, and deck boards.  The grass stayed green as the white pelted down.  From heat index atmospheres the day before, we were into windchill territory again.  The snow let up by early afternoon, a cold damp wind prevailed.  Perfect conditions for a forage.

One thing that defines my character is that I love to be out in the woods alone on a cold, damp day.  It's not that I'm only happy when it rains, but Shirley Manson and I both appreciate inclement times.  Pull on the wellies, get out the waxed cotton wading jacket, the wide-brimmed wool felt hat (crushable Stetson), we're good to go.  Camera in the bag along with the hori-hori (Japanese digging knife), and let's get some ramps.  A drenching rain sets the soil up nicely for harvesting.  I plunge the knife down along a ramp stem and give it a twist, and up comes a ramp.  I take only three or four from a large cluster, and move on to the next.  In some areas ramps are being over-harvested, and taking only the tops, leaving the bulbs, is recommended.  In my woods there are literally acres and acres of ramps, and no one else harvesting them, that I've seen.  I feel fine about taking the whole thing.  Note that these are white-stemmed ramps, unlike the more common red-stemmed type.  Both occur in these woods, though the white-stemmed ones are by far most common.  They tend to be a little smaller than the red ones; the taste is the same.

My attitude towards allium tricoccum--ramps, wild leeks, wild onion--is as variable as one spring is to the next. When I first discovered them, dropping to my knees in a Wisconsin woods to find the source of the appetizing aroma produced when my wading boots crushed those broad green leaves, I embraced them enthusiastically, both because ramps go wonderfully well with grilled trout on a bed of watercress, and because I had unlimited access to what turned out to be gourmet shop fare. And then, when the culinary reputation of ramps grew and grew, this homely wild allium showing up on all the upscale menus, I turned a bit contrarian. Not that I stopped harvesting them, or enjoying their versatility, but I didn't herald their return with quite the same zeal. The ramp hype in foodie world put me off. I know I wasn't alone in that.

This year I'm taking ramps on their own terms again, and loving them. I start loving them through that ritual of the return to the forager's woods after the long winter's wait. And now that I'm installed in the country, I've got ramp patches very near my home. So an afternoon outing to gather ramps and nettles (I don't actually have to go into the woods for these, as I have them in my yard) provides a good pretext for an ambling stroll, and I can be back home in time for tea, a hot shower, then bring on happy hour and dinner. Last night it was chicken and ramp tostadas topped with six-year-old Wisconsin cheddar, a Spotted Cow close at hand.

With April temperatures back in the more usual realm, or even a bit colder, the ramps are looking perky and fresh. A benefit of the very warm March could be an unusually long ramp season. I plan to enjoy it with all due rampish gusto.

Some pictures from a trip:

Did I mention that a pretty good trout stream runs through this woods?  This is a small feeder stream to it.  Brook trout live here, too, and this broke-down beaver dam makes the upstream water quite fishable.

Upstream of the dam.  I'll hit this stretch with the 7-foot bamboo strung with a 4-weight silk line, come May.

Downstream, a meadow meander.

Stinging nettles along the stream.  It was trout fishing that led me into foraging.

Squirrel snack bar.

An opportunity for woodland omenic exegesis.  What can we read from the deer bones.

Snow on a hazel husk.

And on hazel leaves.

Look for ramps where the trout lilies grow.

Groovy trout lily leaf.  No blooms yet.

The spore-producing body of ostrich fern.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads will emerge from this unpromising-looking clump.

Interrupted fern fiddleheads are much ahead of the ostrich.  Not edible; easily distinguished by the fuzzy white coating; they lack the ostrich's grooved stem.

Positively Sixth Street.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Annie Dillard (well, her famous-est book anyway) lived on my nightstand for years. A great pick-up-and-read book if ever there was. Thanks for the reminder.

Here's hoping a little more warmth comes your way. And I'm glad to see the hori-hori out and about.

I did have to laugh at seeing that 6th St. sign. A friend who lives even deeper in-country than me came to visit and said "but your streets have actual names!"

Slow Lorus said...

We were about an hour south of Northfield last weekend and the ramps, ostrich ferns, and nettles were all going gangbusters. In fact we only got a handful of fiddleheads because the ferns were so far along.

And yes, I agree about feeling contrarian about ramps sometimes. But then I come around as they really bring the same joy as rhubarb, asparagus, and favas. It means spring is here!!

Sara said...

Awesome post and what a lovely spot you have for foraging. We're having the same range of weather--dry, windy, then wet (and windy) and now snow In the forecast.

I saw ramps at the co-op today and it doesn't quite seem right to see them in a store, ha.

Jennifer said...

I was at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis this weekend and the trout lilies were blooming, so you may not have too long of a wait there.

Susan Berkson said...

Would love to visit

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: Annie Dillard has been a huge influence in my life. I transferred to Wesleyan in the early 80s specifically to study with her; it was because of her that I went to grad school in Virginia (Richard Dillard ran the writing program at Hollins for many years), and to teach in China. Annie's "Encounters with Chinese Writers" is a delightful little book about traveling in China with a group of American writers that included Allen Ginsberg. "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" is, of course, the famous-est book you refer to. Tinker Creek runs through the Hollins campus near Roanoke, VA. In fall of 1985 when I was there, it far exceeded its usual flow and flooded the whole campus when the remnants of a hurricane brought torrential rains. Semi trailers and mobile homes washed down the Roanoke River. Amazing. Luckily my apartment was on high ground.

Delia, I was amazed at how far along the ferns were on a trip to SE MN last week. They're not even peeping up here in Dunn County! I'm still going strong with the ramps. In Madison this past weekend we had a wonderful dinner at Graze--my pork chop atop veggies tossed in rhubarb-ramp ranch was superb. I'm going to attempt a version. Picked up our first asparagus at the Dane County Farmers' Market, too. My first time there, and I'll definitely be back.

Sara, thanks, and I agree, it's weird to think about buying ramps--but nice that those who haven't gotten into foraging yet can enjoy that wild spring flavor.

Jennifer, I still haven't seen blooming trout lilies. The early warmth got everything up and going, and the cool weather since has shut it down. Good news for ramp fanciers, it's looking like a good long season for them.

Cheers, Susan. Get out the hiking boots, and come on over!

Thanks, all~ Brett