Easy Does It: reconnaissance is a necessary part of successful foraging

On a beautiful, sunny, exceptionally long May evening, it’s hard to believe it’s not summer. However, ice remains on the lakes, and will form, too, on the water buckets by morning.

One of my landmates — a bit older and perhaps wiser — has been providing the brakes to counterbalance my impatience as I chomp at the bit, itching to hook up the water lines for the garden, and set out transplants.

“Let’s put the canoe in the water…the ten feet that are open at the edge.”

“I’ll begin harvesting leaves for tea…the few that are out, still shining their new green sheen.”

Oh, I remember the snow on Victoria Day last year, but in the heat of the afternoon who doesn’t want to burst into summer?

Patience, grasshopper, it will happen soon enough.

We are a little later reaching summer in our valley than in Whitehorse, and as I write this the dwarf birch are just beginning to unfurl their leaves.

So far, the take-home harvest has been sparse — poplar buds to make salve, and dandelion and fireweed shoots for salad.

As I resign myself to a few more weeks of preparation, I take solace in the fact that a rather fun stage of the foraging season is in full swing: recon.

I walk the woods to both remember and discover. I remind myself of what this land is when it sheds its snowy robes, and learn what new surprises it has in store this year.

I take note of what is coming up where, making little maps to keep track. I write notes to myself about what I want to harvest in the coming months, because in the middle of it, I can get overwhelmed and become purely opportunistic.

Instead of being frustrated that I can’t yet begin, I savour being able to simply watch.

I see where yarrow is sending up its frizzy fronds, and look for flowers in the berry patches to get a sense of where the good picking will be come fall. I note the water levels in the marsh to see where the most luscious Labrador tea bushes will be.

I write things down in a week-by-week perpetual calendar I made by writing each week of the year at the top of a page of a notebook. As I flip through I can see what is consistent from year to year, and what fluctuates.

Perhaps I’ll eventually begin to relate the arrival of a certain bird to the flowering of a plant, or the moon to weather.

To be sure, someone somewhere has done this a lot more rigorously than I ever will, but it is my way of learning this landscape, and how it differs from averages, medians and means.

In a sense, the recording is not so much about the data gathered, but the process itself: paying attention. I sketch the same plants throughout the summer, not to produce a masterpiece but to recognize stalk, and branch, and leaf — not just flower or fruit.

I can become so absorbed in this scholarship of the land; I might need a reminder to begin picking.

Perpetual Calendar

A perpetual calendar is a great way to learn the cycles of your neighbourhood. You’ll need a notebook with at least 48 pages, or 96 if you want two per week. At the top of each page write the week, until you come full circle, starting wherever you feel a year has a beginning. I keep track of firsts (i.e.: birds in the yard, flowers blooming), weather events, activities on the farm, and foraging activities. It’s never too late to start.

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