During my Northern California childhood, I would climb over our back fence into an empty lot, pick great misshapen lemons off a tree that grew there and eat them sprinkled with sugar. Walking home from school, I snacked on wild blackberries, chewed juicy “sour grass” and sucked drops of sweet nectar from the purple flowers of a creeping vine that covered our path. I made a powerful connection to nature at an early age that lay dormant during the decades I lived in New York City. It wasn’t until I started exploring the Catskills in 2005 that I began to forage again.
Reconnect with Nature
Though it’s gaining momentum now—at a time when slow living, off-screen experiences and environmental awareness have captured the imagination of digital natives—foraging is not new. Once upon a time, humans survived in the world by roaming widely in search of food and provisions.
This ancient practice taps into something primal in all of us and, when we reconnect with nature, that lizard brain stirs. But head out into the wilderness armed with nothing more than a desire to find something edible and you will be at a loss. Depending on the season, the choicest tidbits might be in plain sight or nearly impossible to discern. Unless you know the difference, the delicious can easily be confused with the deadly.
The First Step to Foraging
Foraging responsibly requires a familiarity with the landscape—including how it’s affected by the weather—and some knowledge of botany. A reliable reference book is essential. The first one I picked up was “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” written by Euell Gibbons in 1962. During the Depression, when his father was unable to find work and food was scarce, Gibbons had foraged for puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts and prickly pear fruits in the New Mexico hills. He went on to live off the land wherever he could and developed a rather sophisticated wild cuisine.
With his book as my guide, I ventured into the mountains and forests, but also into the “abandoned farmsteads, old fields, fence rows, burned-off areas, roadsides, woodlots, farm ponds, swampy areas and even vacant lots” that he designates as some of the best foraging sites.
Developing “That Wild Taste”
Now that I live full-time in Sullivan County, I am deeply attuned to the seasons, marking the passage of time by what’s growing on local farms and out in the wild. By the close of winter, I am checking daily for the first sign of stinging nettles and poke shoots and dreaming of the morels I will hunt. Summer means effervescent wildflower ferments, milkweed buds in miso butter and whiskey infused with chokecherries. Fall brings mushrooms—to eat and to preserve for their medicinal properties. Throughout the year, I’m always after a soul-satisfying connection to the earth and what Euell Gibbons called “that wild taste.”
Laura Silverman is the Founding Naturalist of The Outside Institute, which connects people to the healing and transformative powers of nature through guided walks, foraging and gatherings that feature wild flavors. The Outside Institute has published two volumes of its Field Guide to the Hudson & Upper Delaware Valleys.