Nature doesn’t care about you or your schedule.
She works on her own time, and will not wait for you to drop the kids off from school, get home from work or a weeklong vacation in wherever it is you get away from it all. We have all heard the misguided call Nature a cruel mistress, but that’s giving ourselves too much credit. She is indifferent to you, your suffering, your joy, malice or benevolence. She will be here long after Homo sapiens has been buried under a mile of sediment and the ants or bees are ruling the Earth. Nature, as they say, bats last.
Yet we are clever monkeys, and after several million years of becoming the tiny-jawed, big-brained makers of machines that we are today, we have learned how to play the game. Nature may indeed bat last, but like a good middle reliever in baseball we can have a good few innings — if we catch things exactly right.
Virtually every man, woman and child once knew this as a matter of course. Going all the way back to Homo habilis — the “handy man” — some 2 million years ago, hominins have been hunters and gatherers. Agriculture occupies but a flash of time in our existence. Jared Diamond put this best: If all of human history were condensed into a single day, agriculture would not appear until 11:54 p.m. Puts things in perspective, eh? The point is not to rag on agriculture here, however. Farmers are keen watchers of Nature’s rhythms, too. My point is that when you live and die off wild plants and animals, you better be on your game or you’ll get caught looking.
In our modern world, good hunters, anglers and foragers still know this.
I can remember almost two decades ago, when I was a young reporter on Long Island, I carried a pager. Sure, it was ostensibly for firefighters and police chiefs to buzz me when the shit hit the fan. But I gave out my number to all my fishing buddies, too. My pager would blow up anytime the bluefish would crash the beaches off Robert Moses Beach. I’d drop whatever I was doing and race out to the beach; and yes, all my gear was in the trunk. Catch it right, and you have dinner for days. Miss it, and no fish for you, young man.
An even more intense instance of timing comes in Virginia, in the first great rain after the Harvest Moon in fall. When that rain hits, thousands and thousands of eels migrate downstream to the Chesapeake, and from there go to the Sargasso Sea. I can remember a glorious night in 1999 when I caught this exactly right. I filled a cooler full of eels in an hour. I ate them smoked for months afterwards.
During duck season here in Northern California, hundreds (if not thousands) of men and women mysteriously contract “bird flu” whenever a strong north wind blows between the end of October and the end of January. Why? That’s when the ducks fly all day, and the geese fly low. Know this and prosper. Ignore at your peril.
Yesterday I took a walk near my house. A long walk, as I have a great deal on my mind right now. To pass the time while thinking about those matters, I stopped at many of my spots to plug them into a nifty little Garmin GPS device Holly got me for Christmas. Plums here, pokeweed there, elderberries, mugwort, licorice fern, walnuts, edible bulbs, etc, etc. It was a pretty day, warmish, with little wind.
I brushed against the boughs of a bull pine, Pinus sabiniana. A puff of yellow powder blew into the slight breeze. Pollen! Pine pollen is one of those ingredients I’ve only ever heard of, and had never caught it at the right moment to gather it. It’s yellow, like many edible pollens (fennel and cattail being the other two major pollens out here), and is apparently some kind of superfood, loaded with a testosterone precursor and all sorts of vitamins. Rawr. I just want to put the pollen into pasta or gnocchi dough because it will make it a pretty yellow.
Here I was, at precisely the right moment, on the right day (no wind) to collect an ingredient I’ve been looking for for years. So I was psyched to have some plastic bags around to collect it. It is supposed to rain in two days, too, so today and tomorrow will be my only chances to collect this in 2014.
Luck? You bet. But it also reminds me of why busy people hire guides for fishing and hunting and yes, even foraging. We are out there every day, or nearly every day. We read Nature’s signs, we know what to look for when, where to go and how to get it. We are the hairless monkeys who have not forgotten about Nature’s game.
I saw some other things on my walk. I found several dried and past-their-prime Amanita velosa mushrooms, which are my favorite mushroom in the world. Too late to eat, but I marked the oaks under which they live. They will return, and so will I.
I also looked closely at the elder plants I passed, of which there were many. Too early. Flower heads just beginning to form in dappled shade. That means they will be open in a week or so in sunnier spots. Timing.
It will rain this week, or so the weathermen say. If they are right, and I hope they are, it will set off a chain of event that will keep me in the field all day for a week or more. Rain means life. Mushrooms pop. Greens grow sweet and large. Fish run rivers.
Timing, as they say, is everything.