When I was a young man in high school in Beaver, PA, which in the 1960’s was the heart of the burgeoning steel industry, my mother used to hang our bed sheets out to dry on a line and I would marvel at the small rust colored rings that formed on the crisp white linens. It looked like tie-died “hippy” clothing. In the center of the ring was a tiny iron particle that had attached to the sheet by floating through the heavy air. Its origin was the steel mills spewing particulates and smoke into the air. We all took it for granted that this was “progress” and we should be grateful for the chance to live in such a prosperous country. It never occurred to me what we were doing to the environment. The “environmental movement” was just beginning.
Fast forward to the present. The “Environmental Movement” has evolved and been inculcated into the common fabric of our society. Everyone is at least aware of the impacts of pollution, ecosystem degradation, etc. We talk of habitat and clean water. We are aware of our problems, although there are still detractors who feel that the environment vs. the economy debate cannot be resolved. It’s one or the other. Personally, I believe that without a healthy environment, we cannot possibly sustain a healthy economy over time.
Our food is now produced by corporations that splice DNA together to create prettier, larger tomatoes, corn, soybeans, etc. and now we are headed toward the first genetically modified meat, farm-raised salmon that will not even need to be designated as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Remember the sci-fi film back in the 70’s, “Soylent Green”, where the government produced a “super-food” that could replace all the other sources of nutrition? Are we headed toward a government sanctioned corporate-produced food supply?
Because of what I have learned over the years as a hunter and fishermen, I became fascinated with the concept that “pure” food could be healthier than processed food. After all, why did the venison, duck, goose, rabbit, squirrel, moose and bear taste so much better than anything I could buy in a store? I hypothesized that it had to do with the quality of life of the organism. My animals were free to roam the earth, seeking their sustenance from natural sources. Their life, although hard at times, was free and beautiful.
I postulated that perhaps that beauty, that freedom, that universal quality of spirit, was ingrained in their DNA and thus, in their flesh. By ingesting their flesh, with a blessing of gratitude, was I not then also absorbing their spirit?
Taken one step further, if I learned to locate plants that grew naturally in the woods, swamps, steams and ditches, would they not also have spiritual qualities like that of my animals?
I became more curious about this way of thinking and began to study the environments that might support such life. I asked some old-timers who seemed to know how to live well in spite of having few material possessions. It was these elders that taught me about fiddleheads, leeks (also known as “ramps”), dandelion greens, mushrooms, berries and nuts. Then one day, I met a man who showed me pictures of several pounds of my favorite vegetable, asparagus. Randy Bibeau, of Vergennes VT, has mastered the art of locating these wild edibles and he shared his knowledge with me.
I became obsessed with locating the dying stalks, gone to seed in the mid-summer heat, and drove hundreds of miles of back roads with my Northern Cartographic map by my side. Every time I spotted a plant I would mark it on the map with a circle with an “A” in the middle. I collected 20 spots in my first year. Randy had taught me that it is imperative that I search for these plots, although the actual stalks had passed and gone to seed, because the following year, those seeds would sprout quickly when the ground temperature reached the mid-60’s. During hot weather – like what we experienced here in VT during the first week of May, the plant can grow as much as 6” per day. During periods of unusual warmth, I learned to check on my plots daily, many of them yielding 3-6 newly sprouted stalks each day.
Recently I took my wife, Katie and her friend, Kelli Wellings of Addison, on an asparagus stalking drive. We drove down an old dirt road near a farm, where an old fence had once stood and now the barbed wire and aged posts hung drearily close to the ground. I was telling them about how the plant likes a saline habitat and thus, any time roads salt is used in winter, it thrives, when suddenly, I told Katie excitedly, “Slam on the brakes! There it is! There it is!” Katie and Kelli broke out laughing at my enthusiasm. Katie said something along the lines of “My God! You’d think he’d found a pot of gold! I haven’t seen you that excited in a long time!”
I literally jumped out of the truck and called back to Kelli, “Hurry up! C’Mere! C’Mere!” I sprinted across the desolate road and parachuted into the ditch. “Whoo Hooo!” We’ve struck the jackpot!” We picked a dozen spears and then, with a feeling of great accomplishment, crawled back in the truck. Further down the road we hit another patch, even larger than the first. Nice big, thick-stalked spears near an old mailbox of a deserted trailer. I was elated. The girls were fascinated by my unbridled joy at finding such a treasure. And the season had just begun. Asparagus “season” runs well into June in the Champlain Valley.
On the ride home, I thought of my friend, Michael Hurley from Beaver, and how we used to make fun of old Euell, when all of a sudden I realized – Oh My God! I have become that person whom I used to satirize. Was I regressing physiologically to a simian or was I evolving into someone that found his spirit nurtured by a nature I had not understood?
That evening we dined on roasted asparagus and Lake Champlain poached salmon with sautéed wild leeks that I had harvested that morning. The sheets on the bed were clean and crisp with no iron deposits.