Mise en Place

The winter rains set the stage for bountiful wild harvests this spring. 

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Sage, lemonade berry, and pineapple flowers

I stirred the lemonade berry in water and sprinkled sage flowers on top. The pineapple flowers made a nice topping on vanilla ice cream for a tropical and herbaceous flavor. Yum yum yum!

Before becoming a farmer, I was much more interested in harvesting from nature’s provisions. This fascination was incited during a walk with my mom when I was 5 years old. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, my mom stopped next to their front hedge. It looked like any old hedge, and only upon closer examination did I notice its green and red leaves, and clusters of tiny fuchsia-colored, apple-shaped berries. My mom plucked a few, wiped them, and handed one to me. “Watch out for the seed in the middle,” as she demonstrated biting into the fruit. The audible crunch from such a small fruit and pink juice on my mom’s lips made this berry every more mesmerizing. I slowly sliced off a piece with my front teeth to take note of minute developments of this curious encounter. Tangy, sweet, bright, yet followed by a slight astringency, this berry was not only delicious but MIND BLOWING. I suddenly realized that my surroundings are more complicated, more delicious than I thought, and I just needed to pay attention. Move aside, Willy Wonka, the whole world is edible!

From that point on, I viewed the world in a dichotomy: Food / Not Food. The obvious food items are in grocery stores, but then there’s everything else — flowers, leaves, berries, and delicate forms that don’t make it into formal establishments. I wanted to try everything, to  and figure out how to do it in a way that didn’t cause pain or death.

Well, the last part of that goal was added after a summer of living off of purely what the Sierra Nevada offers. I was 20 years old and at the height of militant environmental activism. I wanted to shed off industrial comforts, eat from nature, drink from streams, and live with minimal resources. I brought a knife, pot, tarp, rope, flashlight, Nalgene bottle, flint, and a Western Sierra Guide to Edible Plants. I was going to hike and forage through the mountains.

The feeling of being in the mountains
Is a dream of self-negation
To see the world without us
How it churns and blossoms
Without anyone looking on

The lakes in the deep back country are still, blue almost black, and engulf you in an otherworldly abyss when you dive in from the granite boulders above. Surfing on continuous thickets of manzanita bushes feels like walking in a world with weaker gravity, every step giving you a bounce. Berries and roots tasted dense with flavors and burst in flavor as though they were building up all these complexities for a moment to explode in your mouth. I fell in love with spring Douglas fir tips that taste like tropical makrut lime and the Sierras had a baby. Camas roots brought a sweetness to my diet of otherwise vegetal flavors. It seemed miraculous to me that these plants could find a perfect confluence of conditions to survive. It is a miracle, but one that slowly unfolds over time, life cycles, adaptations. Plants have come, gone, crossed with the intervention of geology, animals, humans. Some of my favorite things to eat weren’t endemic, but introduced by waves of different groups of people. Take that pineapple flower up top for example. It’s from South Africa when laborers were brought over during the Gold Rush. The mustard is an introduced annual. And so I came to understand the landscape as an interplay of nature and humans, or rather that we are one. My escape to nature turned out to be a lesson in human history.

I related to the plants as something from out of place but also adaptable and fitting, as humans have done. I hiked and harvested for weeks, enjoying new vistas, smelling new profiles, and tasted flavors wholly new to me. I felt my senses and thoughts fully engaged, but also my energy dwindling. My diet, while diverse, was not enough in quantity. I spent more and more time meditating so I could pass through times of hunger and would eat loads of miner’s lettuce. Then, I began to behave the way animals did: raid the camp sites. Sunday afternoons were smorgasborgs when campers emptied their bear tins and cabinets. They threw away many half-eaten protein and energy dense bars and camping specialty items that lasted me until the next set of weekend campers came. Feasting time!

It was in these moments of examining edibility of cucumbers and carrots that I came to appreciate human intervention in food production, aka farming. I understood why people traded the diversity of wild, yet rarer finds for a secure bounty of a narrower selection of foods. But along the way we’ve traded complex, sustainable ecosystems for controlled, homogeneous landscapes to grow a few foods owned by a few companies. It doesn’t need to be a trade off. We can still forage and feast. As stewards who are part of nature we can keep our diversity of food in a diversity of hands across a diversity of landscapes, be it in our forests, farms, or neighbors’ yards. 

Happy spring, happy harvesting!