As we walk into the forest, we see all the different types trees, and we know, somehow, that they all have a purpose in life, just like we do. We notice many have lost their leaves this time of year, and the forest looks completely different—kind of empty because you can see so far, and it is very open. However, that is just the surface; let’s look closer.
The conifers take center stage with their deep green and contrast to the snow; while they do shed their needles, they are primarily green all year, which is why they are called “evergreens.”
Using touch—reach out and feel the needles
When we reach out and feel the needles, and when we rubbed them in our hands and smell, there is that amazing pine scent reminiscent of a Christmas tree—that strong aroma that can remind us of the holidays.
Visual things to watch for
As we look even closer, we notice really short needles (less than an inch) that are flat and on the underside, there are distinct white lines like racing stripes; this is an excellent identification characteristic. It also has the tiniest little stem you can barely see. In botanical terms, when you look it up in your field guide, this is called a “petiole.”
Feel the texture of the bark
These trees have really smooth bark when very young, and as they get older, it becomes stiff and deeply furrowed (creating indented grooves). Look at many different trees—young and old—and compare the feeling of the bark, and how the young ones are really tender and the older ones are like a rock.
In the 1800s, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadenses) was used heavily; these trees would be anywhere from 250 to 800 years old. They were harvested in great numbers and were sought after for a special quality they possess: great amounts of tannic acid—up to 12%—used for tanning hides and preserving leather; the outer bark was used and soaked. Some of the hides were kept in vats (barrels of soaking tannins) for up to six months in order for them to turn the dark tea color and create a preserve and coloring for the produced leather. Hemlock tanneries were all over the Northeast, and they shipped the hides from here all over the world.
What I have personally seen, and you can too!
In the picture, you can see the needles and the bark. You can see underneath the very outer light brown bark, there is a dark purple color; this is a great characteristic for being able to identify Eastern hemlock.
What use are these trees now? They are a tremendous resource for wildlife: the needles create shade to give animals and birds cover. So they are used for nesting, denning and protection from the elements.
I often find many deer and moose in these areas…tracks, signs and tons of “browse” (feeding sign). This is where deer “yard up” (all stay in same area communally); this helps create safety in numbers and helps avoid being surprised by coyotes. It also makes it easier for them to move, because they pack down the snow to conserve their energy during these hard winter months.
I’ve also found coyotes’ beds, which look like circles; the heat from the coyote’s body melts out the impression of its nose where he/she is melting snow with the breath.
Outdoor challenge and scavenger hunt you can do with your children
See if you can find the interior bark that is purple. Hint: When you look around at the base of the tree, you can see the flakey bark chips; look under there.
Tracks and sign: if you look on the very tops of the branches, close to the trunk, you will often see squirrel territorial teeth marking sign, or going up a mature tree, you can see the claw marks and sometime bite marks of our black bears climbing since they use Eastern hemlock as babysitter trees (mama sends her cubs up them in times of danger or when she is away for long periods).
And at the bottom of the hemlocks, underneath the dense needles protecting from the wind and elements, you can find deer, fox, moose and bear beds. Let’s not forget the calling cards of raccoon and porcupine too—scat!
If you find little holes and black powder on the ground and through the roots, it’s possible you have found Truffles (fungus).
Can you find the little Hemlock cones that look like little tiny pine cones—about ½ inch. Can you find the racing stripes on the underside of the needles?
The winter wilderness holds so much mystery. From that first moment that each unique snowflake drifts down from the sky, there is a certain awakening that happens…an inspiration that we have as we are curious of what’s happening outside of our walls. There is a pull—as one of my mentors, Joseph Campbell, would say: “A call to Adventure!” As we venture out of our comfort and embark on that calling, we leave the house—whether it is to go for a walk or even more daring, heading for the trails in wild nature.
As a family moving through the land, we hear the snow crunching under our feet and we see our own tracks, and we cannot help but think of the wild animals leaving clues of where they have been traveling, hunting, playing and sleeping and ultimately, surviving. So, as we continue on our way, we notice that first break in the pure white glistening expanse of snow and excitedly approach our first set of animal tracks.
As we get closer and see the trail left behind, we wonder what it is. There is a primal spark growing in us, and this connects us to our ancestors who lived close to the earth. This is like being a detective and we have our first clue.
When the children of the indigenous cultures in the far north (like the Sami people who live their lives by the Caribou and take care of the herd) see a set of tracks, the Elders would not tell them what they saw. They would mentor them by helping to foster a relationship with the animals by asking questions and getting them in their senses. “What do you see?” the Elder might ask. The child might say, “Animal tracks.” The Elder would then kneel down and look closer and say, “Hmm.” The child would then copy and also kneel down. Then the Elder would say, “How many toes do you see?” The child might answer, “Four.” The Elder continues, “Are there any claws visible in these tracks?” Child would then reply, “Oh yeah, right there!” (pointing) Elder, “Can you point which direction it is heading?” Child points and says “That way!” Elder, “What direction is that?” Child, “North…?” (questioning)
This is an example of a similar dialogue I often have with my students. This is so they put the “quest” back into “question” and build upon the knowledge they have, not only as trackers but in their lives.
Let’s look closer at this. The Elder does not GIVE answers; they are earned. There is a place for children to have their own unique self expression and for them to think outside of themselves, which creates deeper knowledge. The Elder then may explain the depth of what they saw. “This wolf is traveling alone early this morning, and you see here, where the tracks are slightly melted out, it stood here to gather information, and then headed north in a faster gait of a trot. There is a herd of Caribou that was crossing the open plains up there about a quarter of a mile north.”
The Elder knows the land intimately; his/her survival depends on it in the home of the wilderness. He is bestowing the wisdom to this child so that he, when he grows up, can contribute to the health and well-being of the land, the herd and his family. This also creates self confidence and understanding of how life is around him and their deep nature connection.
So, as we go back to our wilderness adventure, we want to ask important questions to create an “experience.” Experiential education is one of the highest forms of engagement…of learning—not rote memorization of what we think someone might want to hear, but actually reaching down and picking up the snow, looking at the tracks and allowing our imagination to dance with our physical reality.
The best way to do this is to build your own skills to start learning together and be able to take someone from the edge of his/her knowledge further. This is the ultimate goal of a mentor through self empowerment and self awareness; we ALL grow in our experiences and what we can contribute in our lives.
See you on the trail,
Frank and Arianna Grindrod
How do we get to know our place? By exploring it! Do you remember as a kid creating a treasure map? You and some friends may have had a can of special objects that you decided to hide together. The question, after deciding where to hide it, was how to find it again. You had to create a map. What did you put on your map to give you clues on how to find your treasure? You may have drawn it out and labeled, “41 paces to big rock with eye.” “Bear right at the messy grey squirrel nest in old sugar maple tree.” “Turn left at big oak tree with the large woodpecker holes” “25 feet to muddy stream with raccoon tracks.” You may have created a key with symbols you made up to equal what something was. A wavy line was a stream. A pile of dots was a large sand mound. A connected line of circles was stone wall.
Mapping your yard or a special place with you child(ren) is a delightful activity that, in addition to providing time to explore together, also teaches valuable skills learning directions, map reading, counting, line of sight, and gaining a deeper understanding of place.
Winnie-the-Pooh says it best when learning your right from you left; quite an important skill in knowing which way to turn: “When looking at your two paws, as soon as you have decided when of them is the right one, then you can be sure the other one is the left.”
“In what direction does the sun come up?” Can your child point and show you the direction of east? “Where is north?” If they are still pointing straight up then it is time to teach your child direction. When I used to teach map and compass, one of the phrases I learned as an instructor was, “Never eat soggy Wheaties.” Not one for cereal, it wasn’t my favorite but the kids seemed to think it was funny.
Once you child understands direction, it is time to look a map. In fact look at several different types together. Depending on the scale you can find all sorts of variety in the types of information the map is providing. You can look at an aerial view of you property, a town map, a road map, a geographical map. In examining the various maps, look at what types of information each map provides. Some questions to think about are: What direction is north on this map? Can you point to where are you on this map? Does this map provide a key? Does is it give you an indication where people live? Where wildlife live? What do you notice most on this map?
A family that maps together…
Together, go out into the woods and hide an object of value to each of you. Then decide how you will find it again. Be sure to bring paper and crayons or colored pencils. Sit together and draw the area you are in. You can decide together what a variety of symbols in your key will mean. Five green triangles is a white pine stand. A blue circle is the pond and the blue circle with green sticking out of it is the marsh. Allow you and your child’s creativity to really come out. Next work together to how you are going to get back to the spot. Take notes as you back track and the retrace your steps. Ask your child if she wants to count in feet or paces. A foot is one step. Agree whose step – yours or hers? A pace is two steps. Plot out the trail and decide what natural features will help you remember how to get back to your treasure. Make sure your child can get back to the treasure. Then leave it out there, being sure it is protected and hidden and then wait a few weeks and then, creating a special time, go back and see if you can find it again with the map you both created.
Do you know the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”? Before the Civil War, this was a song-map to help slaves find their way to freedom. If your child is more interested in writing then drawing, mapping out the treasure hunt through a song or story is also a fun way to learn about your surroundings. Together decide on what natural features are prominent and then create a story or song to map out the trail to your treasure. I remember one year while working camp, my co-worker and I created a song-line scavenger hunt, “Follow the Rocky Road” to the tune of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that led to a special place. Each camper was responsible in remembering a line of the song that provided a hand rail to the next land feature. We told them the order that they needed to sing the lines in and everyone had to be on lookout while the one camper sang the line and repeated it until we found that particular natural feature. It was great fun and the girls were enthralled to discover a kiva as the surprise. We all clambered down into it and sat and sang the song all the way through in the dark.
As your child increases mapping skills
Map reading can provide a sense of empowerment. Next time you are on a family trip, tell your child the destination and ask him to follow the lines on the map to figure how to get there. Let you child know, “As the navigator, you are in charge of plotting out the best possible course to our destination.” See what your child comes up with. Be sure he is looking at the correct lines, else you may be paddling your way along a blue ribbon.
By allowing your child to participate in getting to a destination, you are engaging their mind. Your child is actively looking for markers that help in knowing where and when to turn. They are developing their awareness skills. By practicing mapping skills they develop confidence and competence in trusting themselves. They also learn how to feel safe and comfortable in a variety of habitats, whether traversing a foot trail or bicycling to the ice cream stand or a taking trip to Grandma’s house.
So have fun! Be creative! And see in the outdoors!
There’s a real power in naming places in Nature. This transforms your yard, back woods, special hiking or camping area into a magical land of possibilities!
It’s one thing to be in the woods by that tree over there, but it is quite another to share a story about a place you have had a rich experience in where you saw raccoon tracks. It creates a hook of wanting to know more about the raccoon’s habits and life, and discover if there are more of them and if they had kits this year. The power of imagination and our deep connection to place can really awaken. This can be a way to bring magic, mystery and excitement back into our daily routine.
We live in a world full of changes and notice the technological advances that are happening–the power of TV pulling us all in where we can just sit there for a few minutes which turns into hours. I have noticed there seems to be this need to be constantly “plugged in.” This is embedded in our culture now. It is difficult to go through the day without being plugging in or seeing someone else having “screen time.”
It is believed that our environment shapes us; that what we are surrounded by consistently and our mind focuses on and our senses take in becomes our reality. So what do we do about this culture of which we are a part? Make it a habit to get into the outdoors and plug into Nature!
Nature has its own “screen time.” When you go out in nature, there’s a potential of experiencing a theatrical play. The story of the sharp-shinned hawk who visits your feeder daily may be seen as the dark force; however, the hawk is there waiting for a song bird to drop her awareness so that he can feed his young. The next day, there are cardinal feathers found right near where you see that bird retreat to when you walked outside your door. You may ponder, “What happened?” Now a story is born; one that reminds us of the delicate balance of life and death. Maybe it is as simple as what you learned from the cardinal at your house. In that initial story, we may feel the pull to go out and watch the birds at the feeder, noticing things completely differently.
Insert Nature Mentor
Then Dad or Mom starts asking questions –
Dad: “Did you see those feathers? What color were they?”
Daughter: “Red, bright red.”
Dad: “What birds are red around here?”
Daughter: “Uh, yah, a cardinal, maybe?”
At this point your children are on a journey OUTSIDE even though they are in the house talking with you. This is the power of mentoring! They are going back in their “mind’s eye” and trying to picture the event. This is a very common practice of how native cultures mentor their children. They create associations and a compelling desire of wanting to go back and look. The human nature of wanting to figure out a mystery is deeply embedded in our psyche. We just have to piece it together, take it apart, have it make sense, have a connection to it. To strengthen the connection, together come up with names of these special places in your yard: “Hawk’s Spot,” “Dinner Plate,” “Raccoon Trail.” As a mentor, you can encourage your child to map the yard with all the adventures and mysteries you both find there.
The next step is going out together and letting your child find the area and become a detective while you serve as observer and questioner. This allows you to put the “quest” back in question. This allows your child to feel like it is his/her discovery. There are so many other layers you can integrate too.
In just this story, can you see the power of influence to create nature connection and fostering an understanding of place? This in itself is transformative. Try it; see what happens, and share with us your results and learnings.
Another Story and the Effect of Seeds Planted over Time
Often people ask me, “How do you help kids connect to nature?” I usually tell them it is about establishing core routines; a special place and time in nature over and over where it builds on itself.
Over five years ago, during a class, we were off in the woods, exploring while on our way to the camp where the students loved to spend their time. We stopped to take off our shoes, going barefoot to feel the earth under our feet. I shared a little story and described a natural way of quiet-moving called “fox walking.” Everyone slowly rose to their feet and started to practice this way of movement and awareness.
There were background sounds of trees rustling and birds singing and the soft sound of leaves under our feet. The sound of a call was off in the distance to our north then it stopped. No one really noticed but then a few minutes later it screamed above us in a high-pitched voice. We were all shocked, but in a good way. We looked up and saw a giant silhouette of a bird; a huge wingspan just above the tree line. It cast a big shadow then circled to the south. The call repeated. Everything seemed to stand perfectly still in that moment; as I looked around, I saw the children mesmerized by this majestic brown bird with white head and tail—a Bald Eagle was visiting us. As the one eagle flew with such grace, we all noticed we were sharing a special moment, for some had never seen an eagle before and this marked that special day. Others never saw one this close. The look on their faces was awe and inspiration. Then I noticed there was another eagle flying over to the first, then another, and another, until there were six eagles in all circling this small group of barefoot children of the earth. Everyone was even more amazed at this miracle.
This place was then named by all of us present that day. It is now “the place of the soaring eagles.” Now whenever we return to this land, the children often say, “Let’s have snack at the place of the soaring eagles.” When a new student joins our community class, the kids share this story which not only introduces and includes the new child into the story and our community, but also deepens the connection of place for the storyteller. The kids also bring their parents to this spot and share the story with them, which helps foster and deepen the parent-child relationship.
One last thought: I have been practicing this core routine with many children over the years, my own daughter included. One of my magic moments, just recently, was driving down Route 116 with my now teen-age daughter and her saying “Bear Pass,” which reminded us both of seeing a bear crossing at that place and watching it together many years ago. It made me quite the proud Papa to know that what we shared years ago is still retained in her memory. This is the lasting impression of mentoring and the power of naming.
Hope you enjoyed our stories and now understand the power of naming places in nature. Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors.
Let’s Get NUTS!!
There’s an amazing tree in the forest right here around us that will help us develop a stronger connection to the natural world. This is such an important part of our patterning on nature that plants seeds for the rest of our development and our ch
This tree is strong, majestic, camouflaged and blends in well with the other trees and not well known by sight, but totally worth the effort in recognizing how to find it…once you can find it. Next you have to figure out which one tastes the best because there are different kinds of hickory trees.ildren and how we will interact for years to come.
It’s not often that you hear people talk about hickories—they are not well known—so let’s go over some identification details that will be helpful in being able to develop the secret to finding this tree and some wild edible foraging skills too.
As we get started, direct your focus on looking at the different habitats in your area and aspects of the trees, bark, leaves (on the ground which may be easier to reach) and up in the tree, note branching structure and nuts and outer coating (husk). Find an area that has a lot of oaks, because we are looking for an oak-hickory forest type. Trees need to be older than 40 years for producing nuts; the younger trees will not.
Start to create maps of the area of your favorite spots and begin to look forward to visiting those special places around harvesting times every year. As a forager, this is a good thing to pay attention to and develop the habit of. Create special names and stories about these places, and soon you will want to return often, whether you are harvesting or not.es where you are harvesting food.)After gathering for a little bit, you might want to add a little excitement, if necessary.GAME: Nutty Squirrels–In this activity, you are a family of squirrels. By noticing the types of trees, are you able to find from where the hickories are coming (which is the parent tree?)? This is a great way to utilizefield guides and general observation skills. How many nuts can we gather as a group in a certain time limit? Ready set go!
You can always weave in predator-prey dynamics; lots of animals and birds eat squirrels!
Back to figuring out which nuts we have. Once you have the nuts in your hand, you can find out whether or not they are hard hickory nuts or soft? Why is this important? This will help in identification and to help you be successful in picking the best tasting ones and which to gather.
Look closely at the features of the nut. Is the husk thick or thin? When I say “thick,” I mean like a quarter- to half-inch thick. “Thin” is similar to an acorn shell, sometimes thinner.
Next, you need to shell and crack your nut. If it cracks really easily, you have what’s called a “soft hickory.” If it cracks really hard and the shells are like rocks, you have a hard hickory. There are two different groups of hickories: hard and soft.
Since there are no poisonous hickories, you can experiment and may be lucky enough to find Pignut Hickory, which is a thin-husked hickory with a hard shell similar to Shagbark but a little bigger in size and more nutmeat inside. This is the PRIZE one that can double your harvesting efforts.This is really helpful because the hard hickories with the hard shell have the sweet nutmeat inside. The soft hickories have the bitter nutmeat; at least it needs to be leached (take out tannins) and can still be edible. We are going to focus on the ones that do not need the extra step of leaching. These are the Shagbark and Pignut Hickories
I have found that Shagbark and Pignut together are excellent. There is some information out there that says Pignut is bitter, but I think they’re confusing that with Bitternut. It can be a little confusing, so let’s focus on the hard and sweet hickories this time.
You can crack nuts i
ndividually, similar to the walnuts you get in the store, using a pick and getting the nutmeat out (which really makes the effort worth it when you taste the goodness). It can take about 20 minutes, and you can have a generous handful.
There is a learning curve of breaking the nuts to access them. You will find that some of them are hard to hold and hit just right, (watch those fingers) break the nut and try to open it; you have to be careful how much force you use because too much force just smashes it then you have the shell mixed in with the nutmeat and it can be challenging to get that out.
Learning traditions from our past and developing seasonal harvesting routines for free food creates an enriching future
A Recipe from our Past Called “Powcohicora” (Algonquin Language)
Historically, the native people used hickory. The way they did it was to pulverize the nuts, crushing the shell and nutmeat together, and place all of it in a container and boil it with a watchful eye. The shells sink and everything else rises to the top and they skim the heavy liquid off the top, which is called “decanting.”
Important: They got a special cream off the top which is hickory nut cream, and the rest of it underneath the cream is hickory nut milk (sweeten to taste, but not necessary).
This is not only sweet but it also can be very good as a soup broth or for a stew; it’s full of oils and healthy fats (very high in calories as an easy to digest oil including the high-quality essential fatty acids shown to prevent heart disease), and it’s a good source of vitamin B1 and magnesium. They also provide protein, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals, and vitamins A and C
I hope this has inspired you to get out into the fields and forest, and in a sacred way, harvest from these great beings. I also would love to hear about your experiences learning about wild food. May we meet each other underneath a beautiful hickory tree…
Welcome to the Hickory Club.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s. As a child I remember summer nights filled with fireflies in the back yard. I was so transfixed by these little creatures! They had little flashlights on their tiny bums and they would dance in the nighttime breeze, flashing their little lights to some silent tune, as if only they could hear the waltz.
Now, every June I await for the fireflies to begin their summer ritual. Frank and I have so few where we live so sometimes, to get my fix, we travel all the way to Montague where I know of some choice fields where the action goes on for hours.
Did you know there are two dozen species of fireflies in Massachusetts alone? I sure didn’t; not until I took a citizen science class on fireflies at the annual Massachusetts Environmental Education Society (MEES) conference this year. I knew there where at least two, but wow, two dozen? Twenty-four species of fireflies was phenomenal news to me. And each specie that does flash has its own special signal.
Now before I get into the natural history and science of fireflies, I just want you all to know that becoming a citizen scientist for firefly counting can be done, not just by adults, but by kids as well. What a great reason to stay up just a wee bit passed bedtime – “Mom, Dad, can’t go to bed right now. I have an important duty to perform as a citizen scientist; I am going outside, to count firefly flashes.”
Of the twenty-four firefly species in Massachusetts, there are three that flash. Yes, you read right, not all firefly species have little flashbulbs on their bottoms; only three (that we know of thus far) do. So that firefly-looking insect you saw during the day earlier this spring was probably the Winter Firefly.
A firefly, also known as a lightning bug, is neither a fly nor a bug but a beetle. To get to know this order of insects look for the tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back. A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying. Like all insects, fireflies have three main body parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Being an insect they also have six legs and antennae. Those that have the light-emitting organs on the lower parts of their abdomen are able to flash because of a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. Ever bite down on a Wintergreen Lifesaver candy and seen that spark in the dark? Same concept; a chemical reaction takes place that creates this “cool light”. Cool, huh?
Each flashing firefly has its own language, or secret code, to communicate with others of its kind. We used to understand that each firefly was just out there flashing to find a mate. We now are learning that it is not just same specie partners that are attempting to match up to mate and make more fireflies. There is also intrigue taking place in those bushes out back.
Trickery in the Tall Grass
While the Photinus male is minding his own business trying hard to attract a female of his own kind, the Photuris female, who is about twice the size of Photinus, has other plans. She is hungry. So to attract a meal, she mimics – pretends to be – a Photinus female by copying the Photinus female’s answering flash. The Photinus male gets all excited, “hooray, I have found my sweetheart!” Only to be set upon and eaten when he alights on the leaf or grass-blade.
To make matters more complex the Photuris male, trying to attract a Photuris female will also mimic the Photinus in hopes that he can lure his own specie by tricking her into thinking she is going to get a meal but instead the Photuris male arrives hoping his affections will be reciprocated by the Photuris female. And that is not all; a Photinus male, after having arrived successfully at the doorstep of a Photinus female, will ward off other potential suitors by mimicking a Photuris female, mimicking a Photinus female, but one who accidently gave herself away as a Photuris. Wow! What complexity! What adventures are taking place outside our windows in the gloaming.
If you want to find fireflies that flash, first you need to head outside at dusk. Yes, when the mosquitoes are descending upon you in hoards. Photinus, Photuris, and Pyractomena can be found in moist meadows and fields. Their larvae need moist soil to grow in and soft-bodied invertebrates to eat, so an ideal habitat for youth and adults consists of a meadow or large yard with shrubs and uncut grass which is surrounded by forest.
If you can even keep just a patch of your grass uncut and some of your garden a bit wild, your chances increase that fireflies will find your yard an appealing habitat.
Games you can play with other families and neighborhood kids on summer nights
Flashlight Tag: Depending on how many participants you have enlisted, you may want to have one or two “it”. In this game only the “it” has the flashlight. Decide upon three to four bases that the participants have to get to, in no particular order. This way no one can just stay hidden but have to find a way to sneak in, tag a base, and leave. The object of the game is for the players not to get tagged with the light of the flashlight while tagging each base. After a player has successfully tagged all the bases s/he can hide nearby and wait. The object for “it” is to shine their flash light on other players. Players who are tagged sit out until the next round. The round is called after there is apparently no one except “it” running around.
Mimickers: For this game, all players need their own flashlight. Half the players are Photinus and the other half are Photuris. Each group separates, decides on specific flashes and what those flashes mean. For example, the Photinus team may decide that two quick flashes mean “come here” and that the proper response would be to flash three quick flashes. Spread out in a large area; this can be school grounds, someone’s backyard, a patch of woods, or a field. The object for Photinus is to find one another again, at least in pairs. The object for Photuris is to figure out through observation, what the various signals Photinus are using and lure in a Photinus. If a Photinus is tricked into going to a Photuris, the Photinus is out and can stargaze through this round.
Learn more about Fireflies
General nature activities, including fireflies: http://www.backyardbiology.net/
Firefly facts, photos, stories http://www.firefly.org/
Firefly Flash Chart: https://www.mos.org/fireflywatch/flash_chart
There’s something magical about gathering your own food as a family, and what an education for children and for families to have this experience together. Learning how to see through the eyes of a forager really helps to create a bond with the natural world so we can develop deeper relationships through routines and rituals, especially when you immerse yourself in our forests and fields.
I remember talking with a Seneca man of the Haudenosaunee nation (People of the Longhouse). He told me a story of the origin of the strawberry and how this plant heals human relations. There is a special ceremony, and in honor of the strawberry festival, no one would eat a single berry before the ceremony. It is a full day of songs, stories, dances and giving thanks that the strawberries have returned once again. This also begins the time of the berry ripening. This was not only time to be thankful for the strawberry but all of creation. Strawberries are called big medicine and the leader of the berries because they are the first to ripen and begin the berry harvesting time; they are also shaped like hearts. The Seneca man told me they drink the juice as a way of rejuvenation. There is a whole culture around harvesting berries. We can learn a lot from other cultures that give thanks and celebrate community and values from fostering a deeper relationship with plants.
Being fall, we begin looking for one of North America’s best-kept secrets of wild food: the autumn olive, silver berry, autumn berry. This immigrant from another land is a real gift for the forager. This shrub has many names; it grows in fields, and the leaves and the berries have a silver hue and look speckled. They are ripe anywhere from late August all the way to mid November according to wild food author Sam Thayer.
Finding autumn olive is great fun, and you will notice there are so many berries that the branches droop from the weight. When picking, watch out for the small thorns it has to deter animals who want to eat the fruits. You will be amazed at the amount you can gather in such a short time. Several gallons from one bush are very common and you still leave plenty for all the wildlife.
Now that we have all our berries, we want to make sure that we process them right away or freeze them for a sunny day. You can get creative in how you mash them. Make sure to keep the seeds; they contain omega 3’s and the flesh is an antioxidant, high in vitamin C and contains lycopene, a chemical compound that promotes prostate health.
The trick with creating fruit leather is making sure it dries thoroughly, or it could mold. Have the top half dry and cut in small rectangles so it is easier to flip. Let other side dry completely. When done properly, it can store for years.
Before eating anything from the wild, make sure to properly identify it and study with a forager since there is not enough information here.
So get out in nature and experience the abundance of autumn olive, and enjoy your fruit leather for years to come.
Autumn Olive Fruit Leather Recipe
This can be quite tart, especially at the beginning of the season. After the first frost, the berries are even more delicious!
Collect the berries.
Mash the berries. Make sure pulp and juice are mixed thoroughly.
Spread on tray; berries should be ¼” thick or less; the thinner it is, the less time it takes to dry.
Put in direct sun for many hours—5 or more. When top half is dry, flip (the bottom should be able to slip). Let the bottom half dry (again, many hours). Make sure it dries thoroughly.