Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Life That Feels Right

I have been profoundly lost for most of my life. Various frames, bounds, and ideologies have kept me in check and from harming myself; well, too badly at least. I did spend quite a bit of time drinking, as was socially acceptable in the early years of my 20’s, had low self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. In part due to these issues, I did not stop and ask, with social bounds and frames removed, “Matt, what do you want your life to be like?” I had short-term goals, but no long term vision that felt right. I was following trodden paths that I thought would lead to fulfillment and happiness, instead of living intentionally. I wish I had the awareness to be ruthlessly intentional at age 15 rather than 30, but, here I am. I’m fortunate to be untethered by debt, dependents, material possessions, and, soon, geographic limitations. I’m grateful for the very supportive people in my life that will entertain ideas that don’t fly in polite company. I’m set up to live a life that feels right.

From an early age, I excelled in doing what the adults thought was best. I did well in all of my classes; in fact, I graduated with the highest GPA in my high school class. I went to church regularly and confessed my sins. I didn’t drink until I got to college. I did torment my siblings, which I deeply regret. As an adult, I realize that the problem with doing what the adults think is best is that the adults do not always know best. I often witness adults making very, very bad choices and decisions for the Earth’s ecosystems, and also (and by extension) for their dependents. Many in my social class work jobs so that they can support their families and/or their habits. If one does that, then he/she is pretty much deemed to be successful. This is what children see, and so a seemingly endless cycle of working to support the family continues. What if that isn’t what you are called to do, at least in the modern conventional sense?

Identity crisis is what happens. I had several episodes of despair and feeling absolutely horrible. I could have learned a lot more and made better decisions if I was equipped to deal effectively with my emotions, but that was something I only learned over time. I used to revert instead to avoidance, numbing myself with distraction, usually in academic achievement. I can remember being in graduate school at Rutgers, working into the late hours of the night with toxic chemicals in a lab. One night, I looked in the mirror of the first floor bathroom as I was leaving. “Who am I?” I asked out loud. I was in miniature crisis mode. My relationship with my then-girlfriend was on the rocks. It was on the rocks because I was not ready for what I thought was the inevitable get married, get a mortgage, have kids path. I was having a crisis because on some deep level, I knew I didn’t want to be working in a lab, but was spending most of my time there. I felt out of control and trapped.

Eventually, the relationship collapsed. I was able to stomach working in a lab for a couple years longer because I was going to use my degree to get into environmental policy work. I succeeded in getting into that field. The problem is that I don’t want to do environmental policy work and never actually did. In my naivete, I did not know that it is not the world-saving work that I believed it would be. It is just a job, with meetings, cubicles, long times staring at a computer, doing things that are against my values, and professional development. Despite the fact that I scavenge and hunt for food and practice primitive skills, I spend most of my productive hours at a job that theoretically allows me to raise a family in a big suburban house or even an overpriced city property. I don’t want those things, so I will stop. My action often lags behind my epiphanies, and this is just another one of those cases. Luckily, those lags are getting shorter.

City life - oil to the river.

My life has run in four year blocks for a long time. Elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate, graduate, and now a big ol’ full time job. As I’m slowly coming up on the 4th year of the job, I know it is again time to move on. The 4 year cycles stop after this one, I declare! The difference here is that I’ve asked myself the important question, “Matt, what do you want your life to be like?” I was honest with myself, the person that can sometimes be the hardest to be honest with. I want to be a part of an ecosystem. What a simple and elegant answer! Which ecosystem? I don’t know. I wasn’t born into a healthy ecosystem, so I won’t go back there. I was born on the outer edge of suburban sprawl. I don’t currently live in a healthy ecosystem, so I won’t stay here. I live in a city, overrun with humans, noise, and pollution. I have not found my home, and so I am on a quest.

Home is not just a place, it is other beings. When I imagine home, it is a place where the other humans around are a part of the ecosystem. They have stopped talking about 'the environment' and 'nature,' because these terms imply 'an other' that humans are not part of. They are respectful and aware of what gives them life. When I am home I will be able to split wood for heating, swim in a creek, stop shitting in clean water, and plant trees. Ideally, I would be in or near a wooded area, where I could hunt and gather on foot. I can’t do any of these things where I live now, where everything is fenced, controlled, and badly degraded. What I most look forward to is learning the land, knowing all of my neighbors - not just the humans, but the plants, animals, fungi, mountains, streams, and rocks. In short, I want to reconnect with the spirit of my ancestors. This is not some hippy endeavor. This is about approaching a beautiful, connected way of life that humans have lived for thousands and thousands of years.

Gathering service berries - lucky me that city people by and large use the supermarket.

I’m through with trying to fit the visions of my future into the frame of the society that I was born and raised in. It was an exhausting and painful process, and consumed a lot of valuable time that I could have spent learning skills and becoming comfortable with more responsible ways of living. I’m no longer interested in ‘helping’ society at large, because I don’t believe it can be helped. I am interested in integrating myself into an ecosystem and helping it thrive. Industrial society is, ultimately, incompatible with healthy ecosystems. It is based upon endless economic growth, gobbling up the Earth’s bounty as fast as it is able to grow, leaving destruction and havoc in its wake. Industrial society depends on winners and losers and is based on the exploitation of all beings. I refuse to live my life pledging allegiance to such a system. Will I use it while it is around? Yes, but I will reduce my dependence upon it as much as possible. As I make my next life choices, they are based upon reconnection and reducing my dependence on destruction.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Definitely the Right Spot

When I walked up to the campsite, I smiled and knew it was the right one. Little Stony Creek was right there. It was loud when I walked up to the banks, but the sound of rushing and churning dampened with each pace I took away. It was a mansion of a campsite with ample room for many people, but I had it all to myself. It was bounded enough to feel like one room, in a forest that went on for about as long as they do in this part of the world. I set out to gather some firewood, and immediately found Ganoderma tsugae, a medicinal mushroom. Yes, this is definitely the right spot, I thought. It was going to be a good weekend for sure.

Little Stony Creek

This adventure was the first in which I’d be sleeping solo in a deep woods location. I set up both my tent and a hammock my Aunt gave to me, intending to sleep in the hammock unless the skies opened up. I did end up sleeping in the hammock, which I found to be as comfortable, if not more so, than a sleeping bag / pad. I fell asleep watching the stars through the trees and watching the fireflies flicker. I was still in transition from city mode to woods mode, though. This takes time.

I did a whole lot on the second day. I woke up more or less with the sun (though I threw the blanket over my head a few times). One of the highlights of the day was trying my first bull thistle stalk! It’s an intimidating-looking, armored plant, but a sharp knife made short work of it and got me down to the slightly sweet and very pleasant stalk, which I ate raw. I also had my first Solomon’s Seal root. After boiling, it tasted a bit like potato with some slight bitterness. Throughout the day, I grazed on large quantities of greenbrier, a bit of violet, some spruce tips, and boiled some milkweed tips. I also ate a half a pound of Oscar Mayer, no preservatives, Angus hot dogs. Those were foraged the weekend before, from a supermarket dumpster.

Spruce tips - they just scream "pull here!"

On this second day, I was slipping into woods mode. My mind was going here and there, without the distractions of the internet, any type of schedule, and any other people to interact with. I thought about the meeting I was facilitating the next week (not for a long time, pesky work commitments) as well as current and past relationships. Without distractions, I had to deal with everything that I could push aside in the city, where I find it hard and make it hard to hear myself. Past relationships, current relationships, what do they all mean? Well, I’ll probably never know the ultimate answer to that question, but it sure is a trip to ruminate.

I physically exerted myself throughout the day, bushwhacking up a mountain in the early AM. The greenbrier and mountain laurel made the journey especially difficult, but I was rewarded with a stunning view. I walked across the backbone of rocks, enjoying the warm sun as the coolness of morning was burning off. I was also happy to be getting more comfortable off trail in the big woods, using the lay of the land and an understanding of the basic map of the area to stay oriented. When I got back down, I took a dip in Little Stony Creek; well, not a full dip, because it was cold. Mental note to start some cold training soon.

Beautiful view after bushwhacking.

I found a peaceful campsite on the second night, though not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the first. The peacefulness was a bit unsettling. This night I was especially deep in the woods and I really felt out on my own. I was writing some in my notebook and had the fire going. All I could hear were planes, the sound of animals (mostly birds), the crackle of the fire, and my pencil moving across the page. Everything was as it should be, but there was still that creeping feeling of aloneness. The discomfort, though, is part of getting away from all the distraction and schedules so that I’m able to hear myself and heal. A slight mist was coating my journal page and making it hard for the pencil to make good contact, so I went and checked my hammock, which was getting wet. I took everything into the tent. I was happy to have the increasingly strong rain put out the fire and I soon fell asleep.

I had vivid dreams that night, so much so that I’m not sure what I dreamed and what actually happened. At one point, I awoke to a noise that sounded like a big cat meowing fiercely in the distance. My heart started pounding. Eventually, I chilled out and went back to sleep. I can really psyche myself out when sleeping in tents, since I can’t see anything, but only hear noises. Did a cat really meow? I’ll never know for sure.

The next day, after a hurried, and thus unsurprisingly unsuccessful, try at making friction fire with some paw paw that I found, I walked back to the car barefoot. Driving down the forest road, I had that mixed feeling that I always get when leaving a camping trip. On one hand, I’m almost out of the food that I brought, I have wet clothes, and these problems get fixed by going to a house in the city. On the other hand, I just about start to come awake and alive in the woods after a couple days. I start to feel less like an alien visitor, and more like a part of the woods. It’s such a nice feeling to finally get in that mode. I’m removed from my addictions of email, social media, and junky, sweet food. I have no choice but to be with myself and deal with myself. I can focus on the small things and big things physically in front of me, zoom in and zoom out, walk fast and walk slow. It’s a spiritual experience for me. I’m finding myself increasingly distracted and unsettled in the city, feeling restricted and as if everything is programmed. Day by day I realize that I’m not where I want to be and that I'm starting to stagnate. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not far away.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What a Community Can Do

I’m often unjustifiably credited with making “something from nothing.” A couple weekends ago, we performed one of those feats - making a fired clay bowl that holds both water and its shape. Of course, the clay pot was not made from nothing, but rather without things purchased at a strip mall. I was only able to shape the pot through thousands of years of human ingenuity, through the hands, minds and passion of a group of people, and with some basic, but skillfully collected, materials. The bowl, to me, is a symbol of what a community can do. This is why I say that ‘we’ made the bowl. I simply kneaded (wedged) the clay and shaped it, with expert guidance.

It holds water and doesn't become amorphous!

We made the clay bowl at the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Gathering over Memorial Day weekend in West Virginia. Having gone to the event last year, arriving Friday after dark was almost no problem. I knew where to park, where to set up my tent, and where to find people gathered around the fire. After accidentally stepping in a small artificial pond with my then-dry shoe, I met some friendly people by the fire. We exchanged stories of picking up and processing road-killed animals until about 1 AM, and then headed to bed.

The next day I took classes on rabbit hide tanning and flint-knapping (breaking rock to make stone tools). It was a long day, and I did little besides make some rabbit hides smell like smoke and make a big rock smaller. Two skills I certainly need to refine some more! When dinnertime came, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because I didn’t have a firm grasp of the skills I had just learned. But, when night fell, a father-son duo kicked off some storytelling and music by the fire. They had the group of at least 100 captivated, telling folk stories about possums and people, pushing the bounds of believability and leaving me wondering whether their stories could be true! I was feeling good at the end of the night, grateful for the campfire, the storytellers, meeting new people and seeing old friends.

I decided that Sunday would be pottery day. I had taken a pottery class the year before, but I did a shitty job. I rushed and skipped important steps. This year, I was determined to make a good pot and take my time. Our trusty instructor was there, dedicated as always, helping probably over 100 people make pots throughout the weekend, and often forgetting or neglecting to eat meals. Under his guidance, I wedged some clay, and started shaping it. I took my time, smoothing out any small cracks that started to form, knowing that these fissures would only intensify once the pot was dried and fired. I eventually got the bowl into a shape I was satisfied with, and left it to dry while attending an afternoon wild edibles class.

When I got back to the central fire, my pots were already there. The primitive pot virtuoso was collecting wood and arranging pots by the fire, making sure that none of them dried too quickly. He had two very dedicated people working with him to fire 100 or so pots. There were a few of us chipping in here and there to help, but the trio was doing the bulk of the work. I wanted to learn as much as I could, having forgotten much of the process from last year.

Second kiln being fired (right), pots being dried for the third kiln (left).

At this final night of the Gathering, something suddenly started to click. I was not a master of any of the skills that I had just learned, and of course it was ridiculous to think that I could be. It did take me some time to be OK with that, though! My realization was that this Gathering was not just about skills; it was about people coming together from different places, geographically and philosophically, to learn and to teach. I was overcome with a strong feeling that these are my people, that this was my pack. The people I interacted with see the value in old ways and have a true appreciation for what has been largely lost in North America and elsewhere. We are actively passing on and learning skills that are teetering on the brink of extinction. Besides these skills being a part of our humanness, they are becoming more vital as our dependence on functioning ecosystems becomes obvious and real.

I continued collecting raw materials for the kilns, but was mostly observing the trio moving pots around, building platforms with coals under them, and fitting tight wood pieces around the pots for firing, making sure that no flames would lick the pots. The smoke from the large fire was often blinding and choking. With determination, focus, and teamwork, the trio built and fired three kilns. Someone literally slept next to the kilns to keep an eye on them.

The next morning, I came back to the fire pit to remove one of my pots. The expert potter's rule is that no pots should be moved from the kiln until they are cool enough for bare hands. As I looked at the pot, noticing some of its glistening mica, I remembered the music by the fire the night before. A musician shared the following thought (paraphrasing): “Why is it that we come here (to the Gathering), and feel so good? It’s because we come together and work together in a way that we want to see in the rest of our lives.” There is something truly special about coming together in the context of primitive skills. Coming together happens in other aspects of my life, for jobs, school, religious observances, etc., but these often feel like obligations. Meeting to practice skills that are foundational to being human and are used to provide basic needs feels very different to me. When we come together for this purpose, it is easy to see glimpses of how small groups of people, working together, can live without all of the maddening complexity and destruction that industrial society has created and caused.

The upside down pot with the 'M' at the bottom is the one I shaped.

As I’ve said here before, I just want to be a person, with other people: a human animal. The titles of man, scientist, pay grade level, hunter, young professional, PhD, mean little to me. I am satisfied with being a person, and am learning and relearning the physical and emotional skills to be a true and effective person. I’m continuing to put together what that means for the way I live, and it’s invigorating to be with others who are working through the same challenges.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Down and Dirty Truths About Wild Edibles

I didn’t exactly grow up having the importance of fresh, nutritious foods drilled into my head. For example, when I was in middle school, one of the most popular cafeteria lunches was taco pizza. It didn’t taste anything like tacos or pizza. It was a cardboard disc posing as crust smothered with low-grade ground beef, a thick caramelized layer of some distant cousin to cheese, and a mystery sauce that subtly evoked “ethnic” without deviating too far from the flavor notes that Americans have come to expect. Normally I brought a brownbag lunch to school, but on taco pizza day, I used saved-up quarters and dimes to buy as many taco pizzas as possible. I shamelessly asked my friends if I could eat any taco pizza they hadn’t finished, while struggling and failing to comprehend why they hadn’t devoured every last crumb.

Now that I’m a bit older and wiser, I don’t think taco pizza is so great. In fact, if nutrition is a virtue, then I think taco pizza is every vice ever envisioned in the course of human history, rolled up into one and smoked, chugged, and shot up at the same time.

Fortunately, I had some exposure to fresh foods in my youth. My parents taught me and my brother how to plant and tend a vegetable garden. I was also exposed to killing for food in my early years when my father taught me how to fish. I vividly remember the first time he showed me how to dispatch a brown trout by breaking its neck. I was both horrified and enlightened. At that moment, it dawned on me that those chunks of meat on my plate were once in-tact parts of living, breathing entities, and they were killed for my benefit. I also remember feeling excited yet somewhat puzzled by the fact that it was possible to pull a meal out of a river. After all, a river wasn’t a refrigerator, and up until that time, that’s where I thought meat came from.

As an adult creeping towards my mid-30s, I am finally taking a serious interest in local, fresh, nutritious foods. I wish I could say it was because my body is a temple and what I put into that temple matters. I would be lying if I said that. There is still plenty of room for mayonnaise and MSG in this temple. In part, my eating habits have changed because I live with someone who actually cares about what she puts into her temple. She has inspired me to start looking at food labels when I’m grocery shopping. There is also something of an upper crust social movement happening now around food, and people’s demands for access to wholesome, local foods have resulted in more wholesome, local foods being stocked on store shelves (well at least in the gentrified urban neighborhoods I shop in). Little by little, I am starting to pay more for higher quality, socially responsible foods. It irks me that quality foods cost more, but then I remember that in the U.S., we spend a comparatively tiny percentage of our income on food. Also, there’s no two ways about it - it costs more and is less efficient to produce foods that don’t trash ecosystems and/or torture animals.

Ethical responsibilities aside, there is another reason I am starting to think more about what I put in my body. In the past few years, I have become more and more interested in wild foods. I have committed to learning as much as I can about flora and fauna, and foraging for wild edibles. No, I do not forage all the food I eat. Not even close. After all, I have yet to find a wild mayonnaise spring in all my years foraging. However, with every passing year, more and more of the food I eat is harvested from wild and semi-wild environments, and arrives in my belly via my own labor.

Eating Manwich in a wild setting does not make it a wild food.

The more I learn about wild foods, the more it amazes how far we have moved away from them as a species, and how much knowledge has been lost in just a few short centuries. However, I suppose there’s no great mystery. It is incredibly challenging for me – one person armed with modern tools - to find and harvest enough wild food to meet even a fraction of my daily caloric and nutritional needs.

Couple that with the facts that many people spend 40+ hours a week working at jobs, and the habitats that wild foods exist in are shrinking and/or becoming more polluted/over-exploited with every passing day, it is quite clear why more people don’t gather and hunt their own foods.

However, I am proud to say I have done nobly. I have ingested numerous wild foods and try more with each passing day. In the case of fungi, I have in some way ingested - chicken of the woods, hen of the woods (in the past three years, I have had 50+ lbs. in my freezer at any given time), morels, Dryad’s saddle, honey mushrooms, Berkley’s polypore, aborted entyloma, chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehogs/sweet teeth, Agaricus spp., Slippery Jacks, gypsies, witches butter, brick caps, turkey tails, chaga, reishi, turkey tails, hericium, boletes, and oysters - just to name some. Then of course there’s plants, fruits, berries, and nuts - stinging nettles, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, wild violets, dandelions, spring beauty tubers, wild onions, ramps, greenbrier shoots, miner’s lettuce, manzanita flowers, autumn olives, wineberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, serviceberries, cranberries, mulberries, wood sorrel, seaweed, redbud flowers, linden (basswood) leaves, crabapples, pawpaws, walnuts, acorns, wild ginger, plantain, chicory, mullein, pine needles, winter dead nettle, cleavers, milkweed, and watercress. Notice that I am not a native plant snob. I will eat invasives like garlic mustard without a second thought. And let’s not forget the animals - trout, salmon, halibut, earthworms, ants, and deer.

All sounds romantic doesn’t it (well maybe not the worm part)? What could be better than eating foods you found yourself?

Plenty of things.

In my early foraging days, I focused on easy-to-find, easy-to-identify, easy-to-gather, and easy-to-eat wild edibles like chicken of the woods mushroom. There really aren’t any poisonous lookalikes to chicken of the woods, and it is possible to find 100 lbs. growing on a single dead tree. It is meaty and palatable.

Rachael and I can't wait to tear into this chicken of the woods (once it's been cooked of course)

However, as I started to branch out, I realized that many wild edibles are less user friendly. Some of them, well, kind of taste like dirt. Come to think of it, many of wild edibles I have tried over the years have posed something of an affront to my modern, American gustatory sensibilities. They have a bad mouth feel. They are bitter, sharp, pithy, fibrous, tough, slimy, and grimy, just to toss out a few adjectives.

There are other concerns with wild foods. If you are able to confidently identify a specimen based on your field books and experience, it could take you hours to gather enough to constitute a meal. If you are lucky, you can eat what you find raw and with minimal processing. If not, you will have to spend hours, if not days, peeling, scrubbing, leaching, boiling, and grinding. Of course wild foods aren’t treated with preservatives, so many won’t keep for very long, even with refrigeration. Oh yeah, on the off chance you pick the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong time of year, or eat too much of the right thing, you could suffer grave toilet woes and/or die. Anything I’m forgetting?

My favorite is when one book tells you a plant or fungus is edible, another says “edibility unknown”, and a third says “poisonous”. Quite the spectrum of outcomes associated with one species. Kind of reminds me of the end of pharmaceutical commercials - this medication was found in clinical trials to relive symptoms of depression for most people, but in rare cases, depression may worsen and you may want to kill yourself. In rarer cases, you may lose the ability to sleeps and will go crazy over the course of weeks before spontaneously bursting into flames.

So back to toilet woes for a moment. It has taken my modern human body some time to get used to and assimilate the nutrients in some wild foods. A few years back, a friend and I went foraging in the spring. In the course of a few hours, we found ramps (spring leeks), wild onions, and watercress. Overjoyed we raced to my kitchen.

“We’ll get more nutrients if we eat them raw. Let’s make a simple salad”, I said. And so we did.

It was awful, but we powered through, each eating the equivalent of a meal-sized restaurant salad. Within five minutes, we were grabbing our tummies and fighting for the bathroom. I felt nauseous for the rest of the day and experienced intermittent stabbing gut pains. In part, our symptoms were probably caused by eating too many raw alliums. Try eating several cloves of raw garlic sometime and you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, I also believe we shocked our systems by introducing too many nutrients at once, and nutrients our bodies weren’t familiar with.

Wild foods pose other difficulties still. You may have to walk many miles and cover acres of rugged terrain to find a particular resource, which may only be visible and/or harvestable for a few days or weeks each year. You may have to crawl through pricker bushes, contend with poison ivy and stinging nettles (ironically, nettles are tasty edibles in their own right), surgically dig amongst torturous root systems and rocks, and fend off attacks by all manner of annoying, buzzing things.

Once, I was deep in a wineberry patch gathering fruit when I felt several fiery stabs in my ankles. It took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. As anyone that gets deep in berry bushes knows, painful sensations aren’t exactly uncommon. Then I saw the hornets and realized what was happening. I jumped up and made a mad dash out of the brambles, careful not to spill the berries I had placed in my baseball cap. I sprinted through the forest for a full half mile while frantically stripping off my hornet-filled clothing. Just shy of fifteen stings, when I thought it was over, a particularly vicious hornet got in one last blow, stinging me dead-center on the forehead. What a prick.

On another occasion my friend and I spent hours gathering thimbleberries only to later discover we were covered in deer ticks. My friend, who is far harrier than I, became so paranoid that he ended up shaving his entire body.

My co-blogger and best friend Matt coined the term “goalies” to help describe the above phenomena. In ice hockey, goalies are the things that make it more difficult for the puck to go in the net. In Nature, goalies are the countless things that make it difficult, annoying, or downright impossible to exploit a wild resource. Goalies can take many forms - spines, stinging compounds, itching compounds, shells, husks, barb wire fences, private property signs, and strip mall development. Regardless of form, they are effective at what they do, and they suck.

Pretty nice haul of wineberries despite those savage goalie pricks.
Despite the difficulties and hazards, there are few things I would rather be doing than learning about, searching for, and eating wild foods. Wild foods haven’t been meddled with by geneticists and taste engineers. Most of the produce that modern people eat has been selectively bred over centuries to favor the attributes of size and sweetness, not nutrient content. It’s amazing to think that most modern humans survive on a handful of ultra-hybridized, hyper-saccharine, low-phytonutrient, high-protein foods.

Moreover, wild edibles intrigue me because they are far more common than most people think, yet largely forgotten. I tend to be drawn to common things, and things that the majority of people aren’t (actually maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them). Sure, there are pockets of people out there foraging for chanterelles and morels, but very few are interested in the things I am. I can assume with confidence that I will never have to compete for space in a patch of stinging nettles. I will never have to take up arms to defend a downed log covered in turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor).

Aboriginal people have sustained themselves on wild foods for millennia, however, most wild foods are brand new to me. My culture has moved so far away of wild foods that for most of my life I didn’t have a clue how many potential resources were out there. There are thousands and thousands of wild edibles on every continent, in all manner of ecosystems, that I know nothing about. In age where so much is known by science, it is exciting to have the opportunity to discover so many “new” things. I once read that more than two-thirds of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored. However, I’m not interested in exploring the oceans. There’s nothing to see there but plastic.

Wild edibles are all around us, hiding in plain sight, driven largely into obscurity by modern, industrial agriculture. Finding wild edibles doesn’t have to involve scouring forests while fighting off prickish insects. In many cases, wild foods are more abundant in cities and suburbs compared to wilderness areas. The next time you take a walk, find a lawn (preferably one that doesn’t have little flags with skulls and crossbones warning not to walk on it because it’s covered in chemicals). Ask yourself what you are looking at. The word “grass” may come to mind. However, grass species represent just a percentage of the numerous organisms in those green patches we conveniently call “grass”. I would bet anything there is as much oxalis, clover, dandelion, plantain, and violet in that lawn as there are grasses - all of which are edible. Go out and get yourself a good field guide. Join some online forums for foragers and see what other people are picking and eating. Join a local foraging club and take a walk with experts. Don’t try to learn too much too fast. Start with just one plant species and become intimately familiar with it. Learn its leaves, flowers, stems, and roots. Pay attention to it’s different phases as it grows over the course of a season. Learn its Latin name. Do some research and learn how various cultures have used that plant throughout history. If you are feeling confident, go back to that lawn. Harvest a few leaves or flowers from that plant you are now intimately familiar with. Place it in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Now go to the store and buy yourself something that actually tastes good.

Spring leeks and rock-cooked bacon in the campfire. The bacon tasted awesome.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Equals to Be Honored

If there is one principle that guides my actions, it is that all beings are worthy of the same respect as Homo sapiens. Species such as Odocoileus virginianus (white-tailed deer), Laetiporus sulphureus (chicken-of-the-woods mushroom), Urtica dioica (stinging nettle), and Lactobacillus delbrueckii (lactic acid bacterium), as well as entities like mountains and streams, are equals to be honored, and not simply resources for my use or mistreatment. I will strive throughout my life to embody this principle in all of my actions. Judging by the way I effortlessly grouped the above beings into living/non-living, and how I put the ‘living’ in roughly size order, I still have quite a ways to go before I live my ideals!

Though I do kill and eat members of the species above, drink from streams, and erode the mountains with my feet, my duty is to better fit in with these beings to help ensure their survival. This role seems daunting because I was not taught the principle of universal respect growing up. Fitting in with nature is intuitive to me, but conditioning has not set me up to easily match my intuition and actions. I came up in a community and society where I was told that I was extremely important, that there was an outside and an inside, and that there was some type of narrative that I was roughly supposed to live out, albeit with a few of my own choices permitted. Humans were the pinnacle, with pets as a close second, followed by perhaps ornamental flowers. I was presented with a menu, if you will, that I was free to pick and choose from; but, the menu was the menu and it was all I saw. As a result, parts of my life are still tied to that menu.

It wasn’t until very recently that I threw out the menu. I didn’t like the taste of many of the items anymore. I’ve realized that the plane flights, the car rides, the food choices, the ‘jobs,’ the forms of entertainment, the obligations, all the way down the fate of my poo when it leaves my body, were not what I wanted. In fact, as I slowed down and reconnected with myself and the humans and non-humans around me, I was able to clearly see the destruction that my way of living was and is causing. It was not pleasant. But, by unearthing the source of my life-long unease, I discovered why I have been largely passive, unexcitable, academically high achieving, and ultimately directionless. Importantly, I’ve caught glimpses of living fully and in the present, and am starting to see some picture of how to live the right way.

Tulip poplar flower in the woods down the street.

Something awesome happened when I gave myself time and space to do what I wanted to do, and removed the typical constraints that I would put on my time. Namely, as an almost 30 year old, I allowed myself not to think about ‘what I wanted to do’ in terms of ‘how I will make money.’ I stopped scheduling so much and just allowed myself to be. One thing that I discovered is that I enjoy finding my own food, or knowing first-hand who grows or finds it. A simple realization, really; and, I can lessen the ecological damage of my food choices this way. I have also lessened the damage of my “entertainment” choices because procuring food, and observing nature while doing it, takes time and I like doing it. Spending time in the ecosystem, instead of shielded from it, is what I choose to do above all else.

Because there is a non-human world out there that sustains me, but that I’ve neglected, I find wonder around every corner, in every square foot. There are individuals, let alone entire species, that I’ve never met. In living and dynamic ecosystems, something is always new to be found. Their tracks come and go, as they are born, die, and change with the seasons. In contrast, when I look out the window of my current residence or office, concrete does not change particularly quickly or provide stimulation. Diversity and life are paved over with pourable material designed to choke it all out. People are hurrying around to get, well, somewhere.

Center: sad American Chestnut in MD. Casualty of humans out of balance.

Because of the wonder close by, I've found that my desire to travel long distances has waned. Granted, I have traveled looong distances in the past, and likely will again. These past trips may have also affected my current outlook. But, I have no flights on my horizon, and I feel content with that. I’m sure I will have some explaining to do, at least for a bit longer, amongst my peers as to why I’m not jet setting any time soon. There is so much to be found near where I live, especially where human populations drop off. I am beginning to own and internalize that feeling.

I am experiencing something that I haven’t for the vast majority of my life – comfort in my own skin, as opposed to comfort in my job or comfort in living up to expectations. Let me tell you, it is wonderful. Is life the best ever, every day now? Definitely not, and it never will be. But, the good times are greater than ever and last for longer periods. At times, I can say I’m proud of myself, which I haven’t said much despite my long list of societal accomplishments. I am proud every day to be lessening or at least figuring out ways to lessen the destructiveness of my lifestyle to ecosystems. Connection makes my life better, and I am getting more of it every day.

To be sure, tensions arise often. I find myself attracted to people that reflect the innocence, comfort, and helplessness of my past, where I was just a person floating through life and hoping that I would get caught on something. I feel in myself a tendency to relapse, to throw in the towel and say that I must be mistaken, grab the menu, and cobble a few choices together. But, deep down, I know better. I’ve mixed, matched, and tasted from the menu to no avail: PhD student, fellowships, girlfriend-get married-mortgage-kids, federal government pensions. None of the combinations have brought me satisfaction.

Instead, here has been my guiding principle all along, waiting for me to just turn and face it: I should be living the way humans lived before we lost our connections to what keeps us alive, before we started disrespecting ourselves and others. The challenge and the excitement comes from the fact that there is no well-established path to where I’m going. There is no formal school, no certifications, no guarantee of safety. I am casting my net broadly, being mindful of relapsing into my old ways, and opportunities are beginning to open up. I’m meeting new people, going new places, seeing differently through these same old eyes. All the while, I have to keep reminding myself, until it sinks into my bones, “you are not the most important thing out there.” I am amongst the uncountable that are just as worthy of respect and care, and I must not thoughtlessly harm them.

Young buck in the woods down the street.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Morel Envy; A Case Study

Ever since I became interested in edible fungi, the same thing happens every Spring. In early April, I start thinking about morels. I look for them weeks before I know they’ll be out. A quiet voice nags me- “This year they might come out freakishly early and you won’t want to miss them.”

They never come out freakishly early.

Also, every year I tell myself that I don’t actually care that much about morels. I tell myself there are other mushrooms I prefer- like hen of the woods, which is delicious and can be harvested readily in great quantities. Sure morels taste good, especially when sautéed in butter, but then again what doesn’t taste good sautéed in butter? I tell myself that I am better than the morel snobs out there who act as if “their” patches were deeded to them by the gods as part of their sacred birthright. I am not like them. I am generous. I have taken close friends to morel patches to let them experience the magic. For me, finding mushroom treasures feels somewhat hollow if I’m alone. I like seeing the joy radiate from a friend’s face when they stumble upon their first brain-shaped little wonder.

Of course my generosity has its limits. One must display an appropriate amount of deference if they have any hope of learning my secrets. One must demonstrate a genuine desire to learn. One must not complain about walking off-trail, over hills, and through brambles. One must show an interest in learning about trees, plants, soils, and other types of fungi besides morels. Morels are part of the forest ecosystem and one part of the system corresponds with the others. For example, I have learned that it is futile to look for morels if the May Apples are too small and the Dryad’s Saddle isn’t fruiting. Most importantly, one must convey that they understand that the forest isn’t a damn grocery store.

Just because I am open to sharing the gift of morels with others does not mean that I am above the base human emotions. I get annoyed when people I barely know ask me for hints on locations. I get more than annoyed when those people have the almighty gall ask me outright to show them my patches. After all, it’s taken me countless hours of slogging around wet forests, crawling on my hands and knees through brambles, literally circling the bases of thousands of trees to find the elusive fungi. I’ve logged innumerable hours learning about the trees that morels often associate with. I’ve learned to identify them by bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit. I’ve learned the Latin names. In short, I’ve put in the work and they haven’t.

This past weekend, I experienced another base human emotion. Morel envy. On Saturday a few of us went to a known morel spot and had a look around. We found three sad looking morels. They were brittle and covered with mold. On Saturday evening, I told myself that I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to spend my entire weekend traipsing around the woods looking for mushrooms that I pretend to not even care about. My girlfriend and I would spend our Sunday being lazy and doing miscellaneous things that we had been meaning to do for a while. Perhaps we would look the next weekend.

Then it happened. On Sunday morning, my friend Sara texted me a photo. She was holding a sack over-brimming with giant morels. Each mushroom must have been at least five inches long. There was no mold. They didn’t look brittle. They were perfect, and she had about 25 of them! She and her boyfriend chanced upon them in a forest they were visiting for the very first time. Fortune had really smiled on those lucky dogs.

My heart sank. I showed the picture to my girlfriend Katya.

Joy or smugness? You decide.

“What can we do about this?”, she asked.

“There’s only one thing we can do. We need to scrap everything and get out there”, I responded.

Our lazy Sunday got active real quick. Within five minutes we had changed out of our PJs and into our forest attire. I filled our water bottles and hastily stuffed some bread and fruit in a bag. We threw our supplies into the car and were driving. But to where?

I have lived in DC for over three years now, and know of just one reliable morel spot in the region. However, I had already checked that spot the day prior with little success. I wracked my brain to think of a location.

“Hmmm, let me think. Drive north for now. That’s our best option” I said.

Picking new morel hunting grounds on the fly is no easy task. In fact, anyone undertaking such an endeavor should make it easy on themselves and simply assume they will not have any success. I considered latitude. I considered geography. I considered elevation. Most importantly, I considered tree types.

I learned to forage in upstate New York. In New York, morels like dying white ash trees. However, I couldn’t think of many good stands of ash in the area.

The story of morels is somewhat sad. They are continuous orphans of a sort. Over the past several decades, the trees that morels like to associate with have been ravaged by this fungus or that insect. At some point in history, morels liked to associate with elm trees. However, Dutch Elm Disease virtually wiped out all of the elms. So they learned to like white ash. Now the emerald ash borer is devastating white ash trees. For the time being, however, the dying ashes still yield morels. In the Mid-Atlantic, morels also like tulip poplars, and there’s plenty of those in Piedmont forests in the region.

I remembered some small-ish ash and poplar forests out in rural Maryland that could offer some hope. We hurried there. We parked the car and I raced into the forest, Katya trailing behind me. I began dashing around the forest like a madman, scouring the base of every tree. It looked like perfect habitat. The only problem was we weren’t finding any.

After about an hour, we clambered out of a dense thicket and headed back towards the car. Katya spotted a sad, slug-eaten morel that I had just walked over without noticing. It may have been sad, but it was the first morel she had ever spotted on her own.

“I don’t even think this counts. It’s all rotted.”, she said.

“You can still take credit for it”, I assured her.

However, we both knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied until she found a healthier specimen.

“This area looks and feels perfect. There should be tons here.”, I said.

However, morels appear when and where they damn well please.

We got to the car and took off down the road. As we were driving, I remembered another nearby forest that I had visited the past Fall. I had made a mental note that there were some ashes there.

We parked hurriedly and again we were off. About three minutes in, we found some Dryad’s Saddle that was just past its prime. Dryad’s Saddle is an edible poplypore fungus that fruits around the same time as morels. It is also far more common and easier to find than morels, so it has been humorously labeled “the poor man’s morel”. I’m not above poor man’s morels. They are excellent sautéed or pickled. Anyways, it was a good sign. The time of year was right.

In my opinion, there was too much oak around. Morels don’t want anything to do with oak. “Let’s get away from this oak. We must find ash or poplar. Come on.”, I said.

We crested a hill and walked for about a half mile. I paused and noticed a river below us. Next to the river was a vast flood plain dominated by massive tulip poplars interspersed with dying ash. It was a glorious sight for two people in a morel frenzy.

We walked down to the plain. A family was fishing a few hundred yards downstream. Again, like a lunatic, I started racing around the bottom of promising looking trees. I checked four or five giant poplars to no avail. Then I noticed some more Dryad’s Saddle out of the corner of my eye. I went over to see if it was fresh, but saw right away that it was not. “We can’t even find poor man’s morels today”, I joked.

I took one step and stopped dead in my tracks. A giant gray morel, hardly visible, was hiding in the underbrush.

“Sweet Jesus I found one!”, I yelled to Katya.

She raced over and marveled at it. It was flawless. Firm, free of mold, and very large- but not so large that it was starting to deteriorate.

“How did you even see that?”, she asked?

“After a while, you just get locked in. You get those morel eyes”, I responded.

I glanced towards the family fishing downstream to make sure they weren’t paying attention to us. Couldn’t have looky-loos capitalizing on our hard work (Truthfully, most people probably wouldn’t have noticed what we were doing, and even if they did, they wouldn’t actually go out and harvest their own). Safe from looky-loos, I bent down and photographed the mushroom before harvesting it.

Here's the little beauty as she sat. 

With a new-found energy we began searching every promising tree. I found another magnificent morel not even a minute later. It was a giant blonde. We moved methodically through the forest, occasionally getting on our hands and knees to make sure we weren’t missing any in the dense grasses. Katya and I walked in parallel, she closer to the riverbank, me more inland. The next ten minutes were every morel hunter’s dream (see map below for the exact location we struck gold).

Here's where we found em'.

I found one every minute or so, and would tell Katya “Go and check that tree over there, it looks promising.” While she was searching that tree, I would find another one. This happened so many times that we began to joke that I was intentionally sabotaging her.

“There’s one. And another! And another!! Oh boy!!!” I exclaimed.

One giant tulip poplar had six perfect specimens around its base. I have found this to be rare with tulip poplars. Multi-morel fruitings are relatively common under ash trees. However, I have found that morels tend to pop up individually under tulip poplars- maybe as a pair if you’re lucky.

Katya was amazed. She was finally getting a proper morel experience and it was a pleasure to see her excitement. She found another, however, it was also past its prime. We continued on, having scoured several acres in a short amount of time. I was checking out some ash trees when I heard Katya.

“I found a real one! My first real one!”, she yelled joyously.

Indeed, she had. It was a medium-sized gray morel, and very difficult to spot for even the most trained eye. I gave her a congratulatory hug and we did a little dance.

First proper morel victory dance by Katya.

After that, things quieted down some. We found a few more, but the flood gates had closed. All told, we found about 15 prime mushrooms.

That evening we cooked our bounty in a well-buttered cast iron pan. They were delicious, and gone within two minutes. Katya and I looked at each other smiling, sharing a deep satisfaction that probably only other morel nuts can understand.

Look at those beauts sizzling away.

I have decided to stop pretending that I don’t care about morels. I’m bonkers for them, for so many reasons. They are one of the first mushrooms up in the Spring, which is nice for mushroom nerds like myself who have just suffered through months of frigid, fungi-less conditions. They only grace us with their presence for a few short weeks if we are lucky. They are really, really difficult to find, which makes finding them very rewarding. They have stymied numerous human attempts to cultivate them. Nothing else tastes exactly like morels, and they taste great sautéed in butter.

But it goes deeper yet. Over the past several years, I have been on a quest to learn as much as I can about Nature’s wonders- wonders that are still there even if most people don’t know to look for them. I am on a quest to learn about Nature’s cycles and to find my place within those cycles. 

I have found a rogue morel or two by happenstance. But I have never accidentally found myself in a bona fide morel patch. If I am standing in a morel patch, all of the conditions are just right- the season, the weather, the elevation, the trees, and the soils. While I have no control over those natural conditions, I do have the capacity to learn about them and from them. If I’m standing in a morel patch, it’s because I have put in the time, the miles, my sweat, and my blood. I have employed my full suite of naturalist skills just to give myself a fighting chance. When I am standing in a morel patch, I am overcome with the sensation that I am precisely where and when I should be. And I tell you this- I don’t spend my free time painstakingly scouring countless acres of forest because I like the taste of things sautéed in butter. I do it because if I don’t, how the hell am I supposed to match or one-up that smug Sara?*

*Note: In reality, Sara and her boyfriend are lovely people and very dear friends. However, sometimes even lovely people have to suffer for the sake of the narrative. Like the market, its in control. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Joseph's Bright Idea

I live in Washington DC. While I normally relish opportunities to disparage anything and everything about this city, it does have a few things going for it. For example, it is possible get out of it. Unlike some big cities, you can actually escape for the weekends and get to something that resembles gen-u-ine wilderness. Granted it takes some effort. You have to drive at least three hours into WV to really get away- and it takes the first hour just to drive the short five miles to escape DC proper. Of course, for city folk, rural West Virginia can be, well, an experience. Theres a popular house and lawn decoration out that way. Its a red flag with a big blue X in the center, which is filled with white stars. Im not sure what it means exactly, but Ive heard it has something to do with equality. And I tell you this- the Dems definitely dont have many out-of-the-closet supporters in those parts. However, I dont want to make it seem like all West-Virginians are intolerant. For example, on the road leading to one of our favorite camping spots, theres a church with All Races Welcome painted right there on the side of it.

If you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have been hesitant to call any Mid-Atlantic forest gen-u-ine wilderness. For anyone thats been to the West, you get it. Most Eastern forests were clearcut at some point in the not too distant past. The mountains, while beautiful in some cases, kind of feel like hills if Im being honest. When you get to the tops of those hills ahem- I mean mountains- youre far more likely to see roads, houses, and farm land than virgin landscapes. Bucolic yes, but wild? And while part of me appreciates the fact that Ill never be eaten by mountain lions in West Virginia, another part of me would gladly offer myself up as a big cats lunch if it meant the area was as wild as it once was.

However, my girlfriend Katya and I recently had a gen-u-ine wilderness experience, but not because we were necessarily seeking one. It all started because I had a bright idea.

It was early April and the weather in DC was mild. We both had a long weekend and planned to go backpacking. We looked into some hikes and settled on one of our old stand-bys- Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest with some unique attributes. The landscape is somewhat reminiscent of upstate New York or southern Canada. At elevations above 4000 ft., the dominant tree types are spruce, birch, and maple- very different from the typical oak-dominated Appalachian forests. There are vast meadows filled with blueberry bushes and peat bogs chock full of lowbush cranberries. There are streams and plunge pools to dip in on hot summer days.

This is what Dolly Sods looks like...sometimes.

I have seen hiking forums that describe Dolly Sods as unique in climate as well as landscape. Apparently, it snows there even in early summer, and temperatures can vary wildly from microclimate to microclimate. Until last weekend we had only visited in late Spring, Summer, and Fall. Normally we drive to the trailheads on the eastern side of the park, which is essentially a plateau at the top of a mountain. However, last weekend, we encountered something we hadnt expected. An extended section of the forest road was closed for the winter. The road was blocked some five and a half miles shy of our desired trailhead. It was annoying, however, neither one of us wanted to abandon our plans to camp out. It just meant that we would have to walk an additional five and a half miles uphill in the rain before reaching the trailhead.  Backpacking isnt always roses.

We loaded our gear, slung our heavy packs on our shoulders, and headed up the switchbacks. As we ascended, I grew more and more annoyed. The road was in great shape. There was no need for it to be closed. The rain intensified and the temperatures dropped noticeably as we gained elevation. Walking uphill isnt actually that much fun. 

Five miles uphill could mean a few more hours of this, I said. 

And thats when I had my bright idea. What if we were to bushwhack up the side of the mountain, avoid the switchbacks, cut across the plateau to the forest road, and arrive in glorious triumph at the trailhead having shaved off some serious time?

Initially Katya was dubious. The grade off-road was ludicrously steep and there were large rocks everywhere that would obviously make locomotion difficult. However, I can be convincing. We either spend a long period of time moderately exerting ourselves, or we do a short burst of extreme exertion, I said. After rounding yet another steep switchback, knowing there were many more to go, Katya became more amenable to the idea.

I scouted out the side of the mountain looking for something that was steep but not ludicrously steep. I found a game trail that snaked up the mountain. If deer use this trail, it probably isnt that bad, I said with utter conviction. Never mind the fact that deer are ungulates with hooves that have evolved to move about gracefully in wild landscapes.

I started up first. While the first fifty feet were very steep, the slope from that point on became more gradual. We occasionally needed to grab on to trees to pull ourselves up a particularly steep or slippery section, however, it was very doable. We climbed for about twenty minutes before reaching a level area dominated by incredibly dense mountain laurel thickets. We have to get through these thick laurels and over that small rocky hill before we reach the mountain-top plateau. From there we should just have to cross the plateau over some big rocks and well be at the trailhead in no time, I said.

Taking the lead, I tried to bust through the thickets in a few spots, but was repelled wholesale. I noticed another game trail that seemed like a better option. We started along the trail and found the laurels to be dense but penetrable. We reached the rocky hill and scrambled our way to the top. It was not easy by any means, but again, it was doable.

In my minds eye, everything was so clear. After cresting the hill, we would be atop a magnificent rocky plateau. We would hop from granite slab to granite slab unimpeded before reaching Forest Road 75.

That wasnt the case. Not even close.

We might has well have been on the surface of the moon. A massive escarpment of bare rock stood in front of us. There were enormous gaps between the rocks that would be challenging to cross. The smooth rocky highway I saw in my minds eye turned out to be bullshit.

I was discouraged, however in an attempt to convince myself that I should be excited, I invoked the spirit of an intrepid mountaineer- one who is able to pause and find transcendence in Natures beauty in even the harshest conditions. This is beautiful, I said. In reality, everything had turned to crap. It had become very cold atop the mountain. The wind howled at a steady 25 mph with frequent stronger gusts and drove the rain sideways in sheets, soaking our clothing. The rocks were slick and my thin-soled running shoes offered little in the form of traction. To boot, I was wearing eyeglasses and they had fogged over so completely that I was functionally blind.

Katya and I climbed over several sizable fissures to reach the base of the escarpment before carefully scaling the rock face. Baby, I know its rough but we just have to get to the top of these rocks and then we should be able to cut across to the road, I said.

Do I really have to tell you what happened? I didnt think so.

It was the moons surface still, only this time a lot more of it. Dense blueberry bushes made moving from rock to rock even more difficult, and painful. I wiped the fog from my glasses and saw that at least a mile that treacherous terrain stood between us and a tree line (which I guessed demarked the forest road). Katya stopped to don an extra pair of pants because the blueberry bushes were cutting her legs through her thin spandex leggings. It was at this point I remembered that I lived in 2017 and those fancy cell phone contraptions got GPS that tells you were you is.

I shielded the phone from the rain and looked at the screen. We were a tiny blue dot with lots of green around us. I zoomed out and saw that Forest Road 75 was about a mile in front of us. I assured Katya that my futuristic technology had confirmed what I knew all along. We were almost there. More crap.

I picked a large group of trees in the direction we needed to travel, however, it was impossible to walk in a straight line. The giant cracks between rocks forced us to walk in zig-zags, and made us focus so much on our feet that it was difficult to stay trained on our target. Katya was sure we were traveling in circles. I assured her that was not the case. In retrospect, Im pretty sure we were traveling in circles. I became increasingly disoriented and paused several times to take GPS readings. I was starting to worry that the rain was going to ruin my phone and leave it all up to my wits. In case you havent been paying attention, I dont have any.

We carefully climbed over the rocks for about an hour before finally reaching the trees. The GPS showed that the forest road was 75 yards in front of us. However, a wall of spruce, laurel, and rhododendron stood between us and the road. We looked for a way around the greenery, but our efforts proved fruitless. We would have to go through it.

I started into the dense vegetation, trying to find anything that resembled a path. Nothing. Thats when I went for broke. I used my shoulder to push apart the torturous branches and forced my way through with brute strength. My backpack hung up on everything. My glasses wouldnt stay on my face. Lacerations abounded. At one point I made it a few yards before realizing that I wasnt actually walking on the ground, but was instead walking on a mat of overturned branches and limbs a foot or two off the ground. We were traveling at the rate of about a meter a minute.

Bushwhacking takes a lot out of a person. I was positively winded and my muscles started to feel all gooey. My clothing and backpack were now dripping wet. I remember thinking that I couldnt take much more. It was just then I saw something that resembled light. I used my gooey muscles to power through the last few yards and finally broke through into open air. I took a few steps and found myself standing on Forest Road 75.

Its the road! I exclaimed. Katya joined me. We hugged and did a little dance. We proceeded on to the trailhead, still operating under the assumption we were going to camp out. It had rained so much that the trail was more river than trail. Its never good when a trail has a current Ive always said. Regardless, we started down the path, which cuts through vast meadows in the northern section of the park. Without the protection of trees, the wind buffeted our saturated bodies and we started to get real cold real fast. I was shivering. My dexterity was impaired. My fingers were pruned as if I had stayed in the bath for too long. I was worried that the forest was so wet it would be challenging if not impossible to make a fire. Our sleeping bags and extra clothes were obviously soaked. This is when I said the first intelligent thing in a while.

What if we were to just go home? I said.

Thats the only good idea Ive heard all day, Katya responded.

Yeah that wasn't happening.

We hopped and skipped down the road, rubbing our hands together to get some feeling back in them. Joy came easily as we made haste down the road. We werent fighting gravity. We werent fighting slippery boulders, gale force winds, or impenetrable forests. We knew we would be warm and comfortable that night. We got to the car and got the hell out of there.

On the drive home, Katya and I joked and listened to music. Its easy to joke when youre not hypothermic. Then I got to thinking about our ordeal and realized many things. First, we are pretty tough- physically and mentally. Some people would have panicked and/or collapsed if they were in our shoes. Second, we are adventurous. Plenty of people wouldnt have been in our shoes because they wouldnt have strayed off the road into unknown territory to begin with. Third, sometimes I have jelly for brains- not fancy currant jam or apricot preserves, but store-brand grape jelly (I for one like to blame mathematicians- it turns out the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line). 

Finally, I realized how important it was for me to have had that harrowing experience on the side of the mountain. How many chances do we get in this strip mall nightmare to feel the overwhelming force of unadulterated wilderness? How many chances do we get to feel completely vulnerable- not because we wear our hearts on our sleeves or someone shines a spotlight on our deepest insecurities- but because the landscape we are in can actually kill us? These were strange thoughts for me, because I spend so much time thinking about how I want to become more a part of the ecosystem. Over the past few years I have learned so much about how wilderness can potentially sustain and replenish us, but not so much about its occasional disregard for us, the ecosystem participants. 

However, these thoughts dont depress me. They give me hope. I often worry about how humans are destroying our precious planet. I worry that humans are incapable of being responsible stewards. However, our ordeal reminded me that Nature was here before us and will probably be here after us. People can buy into whatever nonsensical narratives they like that place humans in dominion over Nature. Humans can go on believing that Nature is there for us to exploit. Nature doesnt care. She is resilient. She is implacable. She is simply there- in all of her majesty, rawness, and occasional ferocity. Shes just there, and we can do more than take. We have the choice to open ourselves up to her enduring rhythms and the privilege to join in and make her song more beautiful still.