Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In This Moment

For over a year now, before this blog began, I’ve been thinking about making a radical break from my current way of life. I have set deadlines to leave my job and done things that I and people surrounding me, say, 5 years ago, would frown upon. I don’t mean bad things. I’m talking about eating hit-by-car animals, diving into dumpsters, spending significant time on manual labor activities like processing acorns, showering far less frequently than I used to, not using anything but water to wash my hair, and hunting with a longbow. As I ponder, “what’s next?,” I recognize how hard it is for me to live the life I ultimately want in the city. Restrictions and rules and the cost of living and the lack of access to healthy ecosystems prevent it. By the same token, I realize that my dear friends and my means of survival are here for the time being. Regardless of what happens in the future, I am profoundly satisfied with who I am in this moment and with the drastic changes I have made over the past couple of years in how I spend my time and who I spend it with.

When I came back to my current job from a 6-month assignment elsewhere, a kind co-worker decorated my cubicle with “Welcome Back Matt” written in vegetable font. After about a month, I was sufficiently welcomed back and thinking about what to do with the letters. My cube neighbor suggested writing “Become Matt,” and there it still sits. To me, this reminder symbolizes what’s going on: I’m becoming who I am, not who I’ve always thought I should be. I’m fairly certain that striving to be who I thought I should be has caused most of the misery throughout my life, and I’d guess the same happens for a great number of people.

I know that I’m becoming myself because I'm seeing substantial change in the things I do and am capable of doing with other people and with my ecosystem. The mental, emotional, and physical preparation in various areas of my life is starting to coalesce. I feel better than I ever have. One symbol of this coalescence was my first shot on a deer in Seneca Creek State Park a couple weeks ago. Nearly 2 years of training, having previously never picked up a bow or thought about getting near wild animals, has brought me to the point where time of day, geography, wind direction, entry into a hunting area, knowledge of deer behavior, archery skill, trying and failing, mentoring from others, and personal research are all syncing up. I now feel confident that I can hunt successfully, at close range, with simple tools. Of course, I still need to do it. In this particular case, my arrow sailed an inch or so above the buck’s back, but it was exactly where it needed to be in the horizontal direction. I saw him again this weekend, along with several other deer.

Bow, arrow, plants, lichen, shooting lane

Perhaps the most important change I've seen is in the level of comfort and ease with which I approach myself and others. As cliche as it sounds, as I’ve let my truest self shine, new opportunities have opened up. New people have come into my life, as I have been nothing but genuine. To be sure, people have also left. On the mornings when I wake up and don’t have to go to my job, I am simply ready for the day. I’m excited to change the water in my acorn buckets, try a new recipe with some wild food I gathered, take a walk with my arrows, meet a new friend. I’ve changed the story I tell myself and others; gone are the days where I’d refer to the things I think and do as “crazy.” I used to dismiss many of the thoughts I had out of hand, and now I’m doing the things I was only then thinking about! I attribute much of this change to how I tell my story, to myself and others. I certainly could not have done this without the support of close friends and family. Just recently, I visited a couple of intentional communities in Loiusa, Virginia. They were wonderful places where people are trying to live in more grounded, authentic, sane ways. There is an ever-quieting voice in my head that says, “You did what? You’re not seriously considering joining one of those!” I’m getting pretty good at shutting that voice up. In my story, it’s perfectly reasonable and healthy to explore all ecologically responsible ways of living.

After years of learning and hesitating, wild foods are becoming a substantial portion of my diet. Acorn, deer meat, and nettles are now featured prominently. I’m seeing berries, hickory nuts, black walnuts, and large quantities of mushroom on the horizon as important foods. I’ve moved past the realm of identification and novelty, and am now starting to develop a relationship with these beings. This is where true connection develops, when food nourishes not only my body but everything else that makes me a whole person. There are many relationships that I need to cultivate, as I’ve ignored too many for too long. A lifetime's worth of work!

Acorn chili

I’m confronting old dreams and patterns that no longer serve me. I’m getting rid of material things that might have some sentimental or potential future value but are weighing me down. The shedding of stuff is a wonderful and freeing process. I've had a beautiful drum set for about 12 years that has seen several stages with various bands. It is a serious load to carry around, and I’ve played maybe 4 times in the past 2 years. When I was younger, I had dreams that the drums would be a major part of my life, that I might achieve some level of fame. The decision to sell my drum set is just the manifestation of a choice that I made years ago to put my time into other things. I’ve grieved the loss of this hobby, and I acknowledge that it is sometimes just fun to play, but keeping this large set is not enriching my life right now. Once these pieces of wood and metal go, most other things will go easily and I’ll be able to live lighter.

And so, I am happy with who I am in this moment. To be in such a state is a beautiful thing. However, the moment will pass and I will continue to explore, learn and grow. My goal is clear: to live in a community of people integrated as much as possible within an ecosystem. Though I don’t yet know exactly what is possible, I wake up every day starting with that end in mind, and that brings me peace. I get discouraged when I feel my progress is not fast enough, when I lament the life I have spent not learning the skills to keep me alive outside of civilization. These alternating cycles of peace and unrest are essential in my life. Both have value in their time and place, contributing acceptance and action respectively.

The sun behind the fog

Will I make a clean break from a civilized way of life, go off and see where I end up? Maybe I will, or maybe my next move will be less drastic. I will stay open to taking risks, consider my relationships and what I might be taking for granted, and follow my intuition. My intuition has not failed me since I’ve started down this path, and my confidence in living without many of the trappings of modern civilization has greatly increased. There are many ways to get to where I want to be. The ride is likely to be anything but smooth, and I’m just restless enough to keep pushing my limits!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Living with the Seasons

As I continue to un-domesticate myself, I’ve been embracing living with the seasons. They are especially in my mind as the dropping temperatures signal the arrival of Fall here in Washington DC. The seasons have much to offer: the growth of Spring, the heat and freedom of Summer, the rest, quiet and chill of Winter, the colors and harvest of the Fall. As I spend more time outside, I notice the changing seasons more; I gain a different conception of time, and tap into what our ancestors may have felt, before alarm clocks, before a day was a unit of time over which there was some prefabricated expectation about what should be done.

The past two nights I’ve been sleeping with the windows open as the temperatures dropped to the low 40’s Fahrenheit. I have a comfortable bed with plenty of blankets and I like to feel the outside, rather than try to keep it out. This Fall, I am dreaming about what’s falling. Little rain has come from the skies, but the trees are dropping food all around.

Chestnut Oak acorns

For the past couple of years, I’ve been very into acorns: they are abundant and very easy to find. If you know me as more than an acquaintance, you know that I engage in balanophagy (acorn eating). I am extremely grateful for a group of friends that is also into acorns: without them I may have never started. The idea of using acorns as a real food source became more real for me when I met Lincoln Smith at Forested in Bowie, Maryland, United States, who was processing acorns and making baked goods with them. It was at this point that I dove in, with my primary goal to make acorns into something that resembled a meal. I wanted them to be the main event.

Drying the processed acorn meal

Processing acorns is simple: get the shell off, get any skin off, throw the acorns into water and boil in several changes of water until the bitter taste is gone. Or, get the shell off, get any skin off, grind the acorns finely, add cool water, and change the water a couple times a day until the bitterness is gone. There are tips here and there to speed up the process, but these are the basics. In an instant gratification society, most dismiss this all as a poor use of time. I take pleasure in and respect things that take time, knowing that by choosing to take the long route I am working with nature instead of against it. It is the speeding up of everything that allows humans to increase their destructive power.

I echo the sentiments of Sam Thayer in his book, Nature’s Garden: that acorns make him see a beautiful view of the forest not just as a beautiful view, but as a comfortable place with millions of pounds of food there for the eating. I’ve made acorn patties, acorn chili, acorn flatbread pizza, acorn grits, and acorn brown bread. Most have been well received, and none have been perfected! I have even started to delve into pressing acorns for oil. I’ll give it all another shot this year and try out some new experiments.

That's an acorn crust pizza pie!

Eating acorns is not only a great conversation starter, but a way of bringing people together. I’ve sat in my backyard and shelled acorns with friends and family and taught a class on acorn processing. I proudly tell people that I eat acorns. I’m mostly met with laughter and disbelief, but sometimes with genuine interest and acceptance. Sometimes people think it’s cool, and even if they wouldn’t do it themselves, they get why I do it. More are willing to try it when the acorns are made into, say, a pizza. I was recently at a dinner where a renowned chef made acorn falafel, so the acorn is getting at least some air time in the mainstream.

There are other nuts out there this fall, as in nuts like me and nuts like the acorns. In the late summer, I started to notice some very green hickory nuts on the ground with husks still tightly bound. I cracked a few open to find that most had a collection of seeds where I expected to see nutmeat. The seeds tasted pretty good, but not nearly as sustaining as the ripe nuts that are rolling in now. They taste great, and, surprise, no soaking in water! They can be enjoyed straight after shelling. I’m excited to tap into this food source that seems to be largely ignored (at least by people I know/meet and people who write on the internet).

Along with the hickories, I’ve developed a strong affinity for black walnuts. They are bigger than hickories and have a unique taste that I quite enjoy. I've warily sat under a black walnut tree while it was windy - watch out! They land with a thud rather than the gentle dismount of an acorn. Two small challenges with shoveling hickories and walnuts into my mouth: first, the husks of black walnuts die one’s hands brown, so, I usually like to have gloves on hand. Second, the meat of both nuts is difficult to extract using the blow of a stone. This is especially the case with the smaller hickory nuts. Anyone know of any do-it-yourself approaches with simple tools?

Black walnuts in various stages of cracking

I’m starting to see Fall as a time of abundance. If I had to “survive” this Fall, I could probably make a pretty good living on nuts. Maybe some mushrooms, greens, berries, and meat mixed in there if I’m lucky. It wouldn’t be easy with my level of skill or knowledge, but I think it would be possible. I hope to be reflecting on this post in a couple of years with a greater understanding of how to live with the seasons. It will be a lifelong process for a guy that has lived indoors for his whole life, treating the outside as a look-but-don’t-touch museum until very recently. I’m becoming more of myself as I’ve started to interact with and participate in the outside. It feels good.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Three Plants for Tea

Over a year ago, I was in Peru, struck by the beauty of many parts of the country and the closeness of non-city dwellers to the land. As my traveling companion and I hiked deep into Colca Canyon, we walked through small villages that were inaccessible by automobile. By necessity, the people there had know-how; there was no pizza delivery-like instant gratification available. The most memorable part of the trip for me was an all-too-short stay with the Quispe family on the Capachica Peninsula, in the small village of Paramis.

Traveling is always an experience in vulnerability. I don’t always acknowledge it, but I’m completely at the mercy of others. There is no home to retreat to. I know no one and sometimes do not speak the language. I often don't know how the "justice system" works, if there is one. In exchange for some money (usually), I am whisked away here and there, and in the case of Paramis, out to a remote place indeed. A remote place, of course, is exactly where I wanted to be, and where my soul often yearns to be. It’s a good thing that people are generally good and honest! I’ve been humbled by the incredible hospitality I’ve received on every one of my trips abroad.

Paramis and beyond from partway up the hill

After taking a rough ride down a rocky, dusty road, we were met with an absolutely stunning view. The setting was bucolic, the mountains of Bolivia were across the massive Lake Titicaca, and a sense of peace was in the atmosphere. I’ll never forget the full moon over the lake, casting a bright shimmering beam across the water. Our hosts showed us to our room - a small hut with a straw-dirt floor and no electricity. No electricity, despite the power lines that ran to the 25 or so homes in the village. The families typically purchased electricity from the power company as a cooperative, with each family paying a share. One family was not willing or able to pay, so the electricity had been out for a couple of weeks. Our host told us that it did not bother him in the slightest, gave us a candle for our room, and urged us to use caution given the abundant dry tinder that was our floor.

I instantly admired his nonchalant attitude of being totally fine without electricity in his home. It’s a comfort zone that I hope to get to eventually. Electricity makes life easier, and I've developed certain associations with it, but it is not necessary. Humans lived for all but the smallest sliver of their existence without it. Here, in Paramis, I saw living proof that people can be happy and go about their daily lives without it!

I wasn’t sure whether the two brothers and sister lived their lives as they did out of necessity or by choice. I know that they did live in the city for a time and that they eventually came back to the land where they grew up. Regardless of how they came to be where they were, they were very humble and incredibly proud of their lives. They shared stories of how they lived and of their heritage. Dinner and lunch were full of fresh, home grown/cooked ingredients and stories. We also walked and talked. As we trekked up the hill behind the house, we were treated to wonderful views, and, to my delight, a description of the uses of many plants on the land. We picked the three plants that had been at the table for tea with every meal. I can’t remember all of them, but one of the plants had an anise-like flavor. I thought this tea blend was so cool, as I had only previously made tea from a packet with a string already attached to it. This was quite a different experience, bringing the plants from the "back yard" to the table.

Our host showing us plants and talking about their uses

As we continued to walk, we stopped at an aloe-like plant. Our host used this plant as a detergent to clean clothes. In Spanish, he said, “In the city, people use chemical detergent and it causes pollution. Here, we use this plant and we return it to the earth. We can pour the used water anywhere because it came from here.” I noticed the ease with which he walked up the rocks, in sandals, his footsteps soft and deliberate, while we made lots of noise with our heavy steps and hiking shoes. Every once in awhile, we would pass a structure that reverberated with the sound of rushing water. Our host described that their water came from the top of the hill, down the aqueduct. Very cool. Water from the land, without high tech treatment. Like it should be.

I often think of the Quispes. They are role models, even heroes to me. They are the truest "environmentalists" I have met, without the title, walking the walk without the slightest air of trying to be cool. I thought of them in particular a couple weekends ago. I’ve started a small group in and around Washington, D.C. that meets to share and expand our knowledge of the land. We are focusing on our own surrounding ecosystem, establishing a relationship with the other beings here. During our walk last weekend, the thought of three plants for tea came to mind: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea), and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

Barberry (left), creeping charlie (upper right), spicebush (lower right)

I nearly left the park without them, but I felt determined to try to make something, even though I wasn’t aware of what the right ratios would be and what the method of preparation was. I do say, I was pleased with the flavor. A bit overpowered by mint, perhaps, so I can tweak the ratios a bit next time. All three plants are available in abundance, so there is tea around any time I want to make it! In these moments, I feel the most connected and centered, that life is good and that the path to making it better is clear. When I connect to my ecosystem, rather than walk through it as one does through a museum, I create a better life for myself and do less harm to others. I have a lot to learn, and I look forward to sharing with others who are interested as I learn!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Second Chance for Chanterelles

A severe drought in DC raised hell with the wild edibles this summer. For example, the wineberries near me- which typically arrive on cue around July 4th - failed to fruit. They started to flower, produced a handful of unripe berries, and then just quit. Flowers, fruit, and leaves shriveled up and fell to the ground. In my almost five years in DC, I have never known so many consecutive weeks without rain. I’m sure the tourists didn’t mind the drought, as it was sunny, cloudless, and warm for almost two straight months. But I’m no tourist. I’m not interested in looking at marble statues of long-dead, strange-looking, over-privileged white men.

In previous years, the ripening wineberries also signaled that it was time to start looking for chanterelle mushrooms. I figured it was pointless to check out my chanterelle patches given the drought. However, if I didn’t check, I knew I would regret it. So I set out in the forest, which generally reminded me of how my mouth feels when I wake up in the morning after a night of heavy mouth breathing. As expected, I didn’t find a single chanterelle. I would have to wait until next year. I was gutted.

I love all wild edibles (philosophically if not for taste). However, mushrooms will always hold a special place in my heart. They were my first deep dive into the world of wild foods and taxonomic classification. They taught me that with careful observation, patience, hours logged, and rigorous study, I could make sense of a universe that initially seemed too massive and complex to comprehend (Scientists estimate 5-10 million species of fungus!) Mushrooms challenged me, and frankly scared me. I don’t mind indigestion. I shrug off nausea. I find vomiting more annoying than concerning. However, it’s hard to shake off renal and hepatic failure- the most severe symptoms of mushroom poisoning. Yet, the more I learned, the more confident I became, which ultimately led to something that can only be classified as obsession.

There are those times of the year when a particular mushroom is all I can think about. I’ve considered taking vacation the entire month of May to look for morels. In autumn, I think so much about hen of the woods that I probably appear distracted and withdrawn to close friends. Around Independence Day, it’s chanterelles. Normally I like to root for the underdog, but not in the case of chanterelles. They are one of the top dogs in the mushroom world and their position at the front of the pack is justified in every respect. Their flavor blows me away- a perfectly composed and executed symphony of sweetness, earthiness, nuttiness, and apricotiness (if that’s a word). I sometimes consider putting dried chanterelles under my pillow so their aroma can permeate my dreams. So you can imagine my disappointment when that bastard drought took them away from me.

About three weeks ago, the rain started to fall again. It fell hard and often. It fell to the point where I was getting flash flood alerts on my cell phone. While others were complaining, I was thankful. Rain is life, and the best friend of mushroom hunters.  

Katya and I went camping last weekend in West Virginia. It was supposed to be a standard trip- hiking and relaxation by the river. We had chosen our destination for two reasons. First, in the Spring, we had accidentally left some critical tent components at our campsite there, and we hoped to retrieve them. Second, timber rattlesnakes are purported to be abundant in the area, and despite my general preferences for longevity, a maladapted, counter-evolution-oriented slice of my brain makes me terribly intrigued by venomous snakes.

We arrived at the trailhead around 3:30 pm, packed our bags, and headed down the trail. The early stretches of the trail meandered through spruce and white pine forest. We made it about five feet before realizing that the forest floor was absolutely carpeted in mushrooms. There were russulas, suillus, and boletes in every direction. I was examining what I thought to be a Red Capped Scaber Stalk when Katya yelled “I think these might be King Boletes!” Indeed, they were boletes- two beautiful specimens with elegant brown caps and perfect white gills. However, King Boletes (Boletus edulis), or porcini, have white reticulation, or webbing, that runs down the length of the stalk. These boletes had white webbing, however it only covered the uppermost third of the stalk. We ultimately decided the specimens were Noble Boletes (Boletus nobilis), an interesting edible variety which I have never personally found. We dashed around the woods looking for more. We saw hundreds of Bitter Boletes (Tylopilus felleus), which as the name implies are wholly unpalatable, though not toxic.

Katya and I knew it was going to be a different kind of weekend. The forest was alive in a way I rarely see. Despite being August in West Virginia, the temperature was cool, holding in the high 60s. The soil was visibly moist, and droplets of water hung from every tree and shrub. It was exactly what two mushroom-starved people hope to encounter. We walked further down the trail, though our progress was slow. Every five seconds, we stopped to examine and photograph another specimen that we had never seen, such as the Scaly Vase Chanterelle (Turbinellus floccosus) and American Caesar mushroom (Amanita Jacksonii).

Hail Caesar. Purported to be edible though I'm years away from eating an Amanita.

We meandered through the coniferous forest before skirting the edge of a massive wetland area. After walking a half mile or so, we spotted a lonely, beautiful Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) right next to the trail. I was somewhat stunned, as I have never found chanterelles this late into August in the mid-Atlantic. That lonely chanterelle would be anything but lonely by the end of our trip.

As we continued down the trail, we started to see more and more chanterelles. There were stretches on the trail where we spotted clusters every few yards. We spotted more yet when we moved out of the spruce-wetland area and entered the mixed hardwood-rhododendron forest that lined the river’s edge. Katya and I would sometimes go off trail to look around.  However, the vast majority of chanterelles were either smack-dab in the middle of the overgrown foot trial, or speckling the steep hillsides abutting it. There were so many mushrooms that we had to be careful when moving through taller grasses so not to step on hidden chanterelles. Remember, we were both carrying large, heavy packs, with an original goal to camp and relax, not spend hours harvesting mushrooms. It was getting later in the day and we wanted to get to camp before nightfall. However, we certainly weren’t going to leave any chanterelles behind. So we bent down time and time again, under the weight of our heavy loads, using our knives to liberate every good-sized, golden flavor bomb we spied.

This is what we saw every two feet or so.

After a few hours of bending down, standing up, traversing rough terrain, and fording the river, we finally arrived at our campsite just before dark. We immediately found the missing pieces to our tent- right where we left them all those months ago. After setting up the tent, we gathered wood and started a campfire. We cooked instant mashed potatoes before taking an evening dip in the river and calling it a night.

The next morning, we lounged around the campsite, cooked some oatmeal, and took another swim. We wanted to head out relatively early, as we had to hike out about eight miles, and we knew it would be slow going if we found as many chanterelles on the way out as we had on the way in. We took down our camp and headed down the trail around 10 am. We walked just a few feet before spotting a chanterelle. It was an absolute bonanza for the next few miles. Unlike our experience on the hike into camp, on the hike out, it proved very fruitful to get off-trail and explore the hardwoods at the base of the steep hills framing the valley. There were chanterelles everywhere- not in small, diffuse patches, but literally everywhere. The entire forest was a chanterelle patch!

We were starting to feel more like agricultural field hands than weekend foragers. Katya and I darted around in a frenzy, climbing hills, weaving our way through trees and brushes, gathering giant chanterelles in a methodical, job-like fashion. Our sacks were starting to overflow with mushrooms- extra weight on top of our already heavy loads. When you really want to find a mushroom and can’t, it’s heartbreaking. You would give anything to find just one. We on the other hand, were having a once-in-a-lifetime day for mushroom foragers, a day when you find such great numbers of choice edibles that awe and excitement are replaced with “Oh shit, another one. Now I have to bend down and pick it up”. This went on for hours, during which time we barely covered a few miles.

Just look at that golden flavor bomb. Katya's loving it.

As we moved uphill away from the river, things quieted down some. We moved through a rocky stretch of maple-dominated forest where we encountered few mushrooms. It was a nice break. It was getting later in the day, we still had hours of hiking ahead of us, and it would be a 3.5-hour drive back to the District. We took advantage of the lack of fungus, hastening our pace to cover four miles quickly. My shoulders and legs were on fire from the weight and constant bending down. We just had a few more miles to go. Despite our love for chanterelles, a part of us hoped we would make it to the car without spotting another mushroom. That proved not be the case. One particular forest road doubling as a foot trail was completely littered with chanterelles. The steep hillsides below and above the road were littered as well. Katya and I looked at each other, quietly accepted our duty, and gathered every last one of them. There were times on those hills when I was deeply envious of hooved mammals that walk on all four.

It was 6:30 pm by the time we finally reached the car. We immediately dropped our packs and reveled in the sensation of no longer feeling like beasts of burden. Our burden had been chanterelles – 10 lbs. when all was said and done. Despite my previous levity about not wanting to find any more, too many chanterelles are really no burden at all.

Those bags looked much better on the car than slung over our shoulders.

The following evening, we invited our dear friend Matt over and made a completely over-the-top meal made with our bounty- bucatini with chanterelle cream sauce. We used an absurd amount of chanterelles, which would have cost $100 had we bought them in a store. Our only costs were time, effort, and taxonomic nerd-out sessions that allow us to recognize and safely enjoy Nature’s gifts. We dried the remainder of the mushrooms, ultimately giving away or bartering most of what we found. We set aside a large bag for Katya’s mother. I traded some with coworkers- chanterelles for a hand-me-down rain jacket and recently caught Alaskan seafood (halibut and shrimp). 

When I share Nature’s gifts with others, I experience far more joy than I ever could from hoarding. Every time I am able to share what I have gathered, I am reminded that despite propaganda and institutions that aim to convince people it’s a dog-eat-dog world, human beings are social creatures who grow stronger in their cooperation with and dependency on others. I cannot possibly find or produce all that I need and want by myself, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to live in such a lonely world. Like so many mushrooming experiences, this one connected me more deeply to the Earth and my fellow humans. Those chanterelles may not have showed up on Independence Day like I was used to, but like all hip, cool organisms, they are cooler still for showing up fashionably late. Now I just need to figure out how to take the entire month of August off from work.

This article was written in loving memory of all the wineberries that never got the rain they needed.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

More Than I Imagined

My journey to develop a close relationship with the beings that surround me is pleasantly never-ending. The barrier between me and them has only started to come down in the past couple of years. I am at an interesting transition time now, with the sun setting on my old way of life, while one that aligns with my values is coming to light. The new way will surely lead to less money, less comfort (at least for a time), and more physical and emotional exertion, but it is the only way to a life worth living. Right now, I have amazing experiences with different ecosystems for bits of time, and then walk back into a sterile office environment. This pattern is unsustainable, unsatisfying, and jarring to my being. I want to live in a community that relies on and contributes to the healthy ecosystem around it. Right now, I am learning about and meeting the beings that surround me. I made important progress toward that end during a mushroom walk with Matt Cohen of Matt’s Habitats (Silver Spring, MD).

I’ve been eating some select wild mushrooms for a couple of years, due to becoming best friends with the seasoned mushroom hunter, Joseph Ziobro. But, I’ve never asked him the right questions or tried to come up with a way to conceptualize learning new mushrooms. I fell prey to the belief that most mushrooms would kill me and that there are only a handful that are edible. As I’ve now finally come around to using Tom Elpel’s Botany in a Day for placing plants that I know into families, I am happy to have found a way to start categorizing mushrooms and understanding them more.

I seem to always be surprised when I come to find that something is not as complex and scary as I thought it was. Learning mycologist’s names for mushrooms is a matter of careful observation, patience, making the time, and asking questions. When I learn a mushroom’s name and some of its history, I am let into a space where I’m able to develop a relationship, to begin understanding what this fungus is and does. Matt taught us to ask questions like: is the mushroom growing out of the ground or wood? Does it have gills, pores, neither? What color is it? Does it stain when bruised or cut? Then, we can categorize: boletes, russulas, amanitas, polypores, cup fungus, etc. I’ve been whipped into a frenzy - a good kind of frenzy. I find myself laying down on the forest floor and crawling around on my hands and knees to meet new friends.

Treeful of oyster mushrooms

Aside from the identification aspect, Matt’s class was incredibly important to my perception. As I mentioned above, I had pretty much decided that many mushrooms were killers, and that I should just stick to the few I knew. In the area that I live, Amanita bisporigera, or destroying angel, and Amanita phalloides, or death cap, can kill me in very unpleasant ways. Of course, other mushrooms are also very harmful in significant quantities. But, I came to learn that that there are many edible, good tasting mushrooms - many more than I imagined. My unfounded fear dissolved quickly as I started picking up mushrooms, observing their properties, and nibbling on some of the boletes that passed an initial screening test.

When I eat wild food, I feed my body and soul. I am reminded that there is a whole world out there that does its thing independent of what I do. I realize the importance of connection to the rest of life and the reciprocal relationship I must practice to keep up my end of the bargain. Hunting and gathering is not just about taking, but also giving, and I must do more giving. From a young age, I learned that, in human relationships, I should give as well as take, that I should share. Here, I must apply this in a different context. To truly give, I must live amongst the beings that give me life. Right now, I am still an alien invader. My food comes from way over there, my water from over there, and my shelter and heat from long supply chains. I don’t eat much near my house due to pollution, lack of availability, and the law. I want this to end; it doesn’t feel right.

As someone who has trained for and lived a life largely in his head, I am learning to listen to and yield to the way things feel. When I meet another being, when I eat wild food, I am overcome with joy. I relish the great unknown that is becoming known, wondering what is out there and what else I’ve been missing my whole life. As I sit here, I imagine the mushrooms popping up and the deer moving about. I imagine, not out of intellectual curiosity, but because my soul yearns for connection. I long to get back to biodiverse places.

I tried a russula and a bolete for the first time this past weekend. I cooked up a few pounds of oyster mushroom that I found. I made a delicious sweet and sour drink from staghorn sumac. When I was out setting up hunting blinds the other day, I noticed that the autumn olives were starting to ripen. As I keep track of the plants I know in Botany in a Day, I realize that I’m actually making a dent in learning plants. When I go out to biodiverse places, I feel more and more at home. While in Pennsylvania last week, it seemed that every dead tree was covered in oyster mushrooms and silently shouting to me. As I open myself up to all that’s out there, a whole new world is being revealed to me. One that was always there, but that I ignored.

Staghorn sumac fruit

Sumac tea, the taste of summer - steep in cold water for 20 min

Though I experience the world in its wonder and sometimes think that things are speaking to me, I know that the universe does not care about me and my fate, because I am just one among many. Beings live and die every day. In some ways, that knowing is comforting and liberating, and in other ways it is deeply frightening. I say liberating because this knowing frees me from my old notions that I am really something, that I’m meant to be something amazing, that I’m important enough to warrant some special attention, that some god is watching over me to make sure that I’m taken care of. Knowing that those notions are false, I can let go of the great, impossible expectations that I’ve had for myself. On the other hand, I say frightening because the Earth’s ecosystems, in all of their beauty and wonder, contain real dangers: ticks, hypothermia, snake and spider bites, trips and falls, allergic reactions. The list of dangers goes on long enough that my head implores me to consider staying inside, or at least not venturing far. But, there is no unfeeling the feeling of tasting the wild, literally and figuratively, of making something with material that another being provided. And so, I continue to march on, toward a more wild life.

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.