Slowing down enough to actually see anything is the hard part. Not to mention hear, feel, smell or taste anything. We carry so much clutter in our heads it takes me at least four days in the woods to get pop songs out of my mind and begin to hear the birds, cicadas and wind.
When I was a loner teenager, I wandered the forest trying to slow way down. I walked softly trying to make no sound in the crackling leaves and pine straw. I still wasn’t noticing much.
I slowed down more. I heard a bird making a nest above.
I crouched down and crawled. I felt a slight breeze I hadn’t noticed before.
I crawled slowly on my hands and knees until I felt still enough to notice my body pulse with my heart beat.
I looked up to see the tiniest tuft of fur, silver then tipped with red, caught in the stinging hairs of a wood nettle plant.
I took it to be from a fox I’d seen from a distance streak out of sight days before in the steamy morning. Down in the forest duff ahead of me, I could now make out the slightest shadow trail, subtle dark spots where paws stealthily traced a path beyond the wood nettles. I stared at the fur for a long time, picturing the fox as it moved like a ghost through underbrush to do its foxy things. I smiled and rolled onto the ground, wordless with the fullness of such an ordinary miracle. A small simple moment can change a person.
It’s wood nettle harvesting season. If you don’t slow down and move deliberately nettles will tell you with a sting of fire that you’re being too fast and careless. Wood nettles are the native cousin to the more infamous stinging nettle, which hitched a ride over here from Asia. Stinging nettle loves the sunshine, but wood nettle is a dweller of the forest. They both sting, though wood nettle seems friendlier to my skin, burning for a moment then dissipating. The newest growth is cut for salves, cooking greens and tea. You can brew the tea fresh or after drying the nettles in the shade. The stinging hairs are deactivated by cooking heat or drying. The fresh shoots can also be cooked and eaten as one of our native super foods. It’s full of vitamins, minerals, iron, protein. It has higher protein content than any cultivated vegetable and is one of the most powerful blood builders known. I think of it as preventative medicine. Sauteed in butter, I love to add wood nettles to bull’s eyes (duck egg fried in a hole in the center of sourdough bread with cheese) for breakfast.
Our family loosely cultivates a patch of wood nettles in the woods along the river downtown. Emily uses nettles for making salves. Nettles is a healer, mending wounds quickly. I can see where she’s been cutting in this nettles patch in weeks past. Stalks nipped back and re-sprouting, a resurrection of lush deep veined leaves. The newest growth doesn’t sting much, but a pair of gloves is still recommended. My girls work together to cut them for a while. Then they tire of it and move on to braiding clumps of tall grass, giving the forest an up-do. While the girls style the grass and Morgan gorges himself on dew berries I go to cutting. It’s a rare moment of calm when none of my children needs anything from me.
Despite getting stung, gathering wood nettles long ago lit a fire in my heart. Foraging wild food and medicine is like finding a little trap door to slip out of the culture that says we must work for slips of paper or chips of metal or, nowadays, digital blips, and exchange them for stuff we need. It’s like emerging from a sea of forgetfulness. All that we need surrounds us, but we have no time to look for it as we must get to work on time. I’m not saying it’s easy to live outside consumer culture. I’ve never entirely figured it out anyway. But I hear everywhere around me people longing for something missing. As if we’ve finally arrived at the dream of so many countless suffering generations- that life would be easy, that we wouldn’t have to do back breaking, dirty bloody work anymore, that we would have countless hours of leisure. Only to find that the dream is empty.
Martin Luther King once said, “The most revolutionary thing you can do is grow your own food.” I might add that gathering it from the wild might be even more radical, though it’s the oldest activity in human history. We can shake our fists at what we think is not working in the system as much as we want, but if we’re totally dependent on it, we can’t choose another way. That’s why the buffalo were slaughtered. If the Sioux continued to hunt and gather their food, refuse to believe in land ownership, move continuously and not do anything taxable, they were ungovernable. And their existence was a threat to an economic system that was built on creating dependence. Independent households and communities don’t buy much stuff .
Bill Mollison, co-founder of permaculture wrote,”Very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power…to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.” These kinds of realizations drove me to learn about wild foods as a teenager. If there is any counter culture left, it’s happening on this cultural edge, the exploding interest in gardening, foraging, natural building, alternative energy, intentional communities. Doing it ourselves, and together through cooperation. Stepping around the denial of access created by money and power and figuring out other ways to get it done. It’s a great remembering. We belong here and are born free. I think of the fox, moving seamlessly through the forest, living on earth without paying for food or rent, except finally one day with it’s life. And it’s death is only more life, pushing up daisies, or maybe wood nettles. Which leads me to Wendell Berry…
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.