Thursday, 11 May 2017
First we went by Mr. Haldeman's house to see if he'd come home for lunch, but as he hadn't, we swung by his feedlot.
"Feedlot" is a dirty word to 'enlightened' city people but really, in winter, you can't be having the cattle out in the field without shelter, and risking your tractor getting stuck in the snow every time you bring them hay. There's wolves and coyotes to consider, too. So, for about half the year, most farmers bring them in where they can have an eye kept on them.
We found Mr Haldeman up to his knees - literally - in mud. The poor cattle, too, mamas and calves. They'd normally be out on the grazing land by now but it's been taken over by the river what with the biblical proportion floods and all. Still, he greeted us with a bright "How do!". I got out of the car so we could talk directly, just shouting out the car window didn't seem quite mannerly somehow. I hardly knew what to say to him, how does one express sympathy for such disaster? I mumbled something appropriate and he, typical farmer, answered with a cheerful "what can you do .." before I came to the point.
"We were wondering if we can go out onto your land today Mr. Haldeman?"
"Well surely you can, help yourself!" (We knew he'd say that of course, but it's just plain good manners to ask.)
"Oh good, thanks, I'm after some stinging nettles" and he nodded. Mr. Haldeman knows about wild food. He looked over at Paul with his one good eye and told him "you'll get in about as far as the wood pile, you'll have to walk in after that."
The lane leading into the land wasn't too bad, a few large puddles that were easy enough for Paul to get our little car around. To our left, the pasture was pretty much a lake, with dozens of Canada geese hanging around in it. They weren't unduly alarmed by our presence, they just sort of sidled off a bit.
I spotted a patch of bushes at the foot of a tree and said "ooh, gooseberries!"
"Well that's appropriate," Paul chuckled, and it actually took me a minute to 'get' it, which made him chuckle all the more. But one has to wonder, do geese eat gooseberries?
It wasn't long before Paul was saying "there's my wood!", and he meant it, that really will be our firewood next winter, Mr Haldeman has become our go-to "wood guy". He cuts it nice and small so it's easy to handle, it's always good and dry and last winter when he knew money was a bit tight in this house, he offered to let us pay it off a bit at a time, instead of all at once when he delivered it. Nice guy Mr. Haldeman. We have no idea how old he is, the pronounced stoop and the one good eye probably make him appear older than he is. But work? Man, does he work.
We stopped at the wood pile, got out of the car and breathed. Mmmm. Wet green grass, wet clay mud, a slight leftover aroma of cattle and the smell of the swollen stream we were heading for. The lane curved around towards the old homestead, bushes and a small crick on one side, pasture on the other. All the good stuff grows on the edges and I, winter weary, was torn between checking out the beginnings of red clover and yarrow and other forms of delight to my eyes on the pasture side, and poking around near the crick. A hawthorne yanked my attention to the crick-side. Still bare but oh so elegantly hawthorn-y, those long sharp thorns slicing the air, it was old, lichen on the branches, twisted trunk. I love hawthorn.
(It strikes me, often, that I'm not a very good walking companion. I'm inclined to get sucked in by smells and green things and I'm gone - gone - in short order. Lucky for me Paul tolerates this, in fact it amuses him.)
He wandered off towards the homestead, I poked around near the crick, exclaiming with glee at every discovery. Not that anything was unusual in itself, it was just so wonderful to see living green things again that I greeted each and every plant like an old long lost friend. After a bit of that I caught up to him behind the old house where the stream has carved a big semi-circular arc in the clay. It's quite the site, it drops down a good 20 or 30 feet to a lazy little stream full of reeds and cattails - normally - but this time it was half full of brown, fast moving, swirling water. There was a flash of blue, and then another - kingfishers! - and a twittering swallow-type bird swooped low. Paul told me later the tree that grows in the curve of the stream (now up to its branches in water) was full of birds, blue ones. Swallows? Purple Martins? Actual blue-birds? We don't know.
I'm not sure where Paul went after that but I headed for 'my' nettle patch. Slowly. Reverently. It might seem odd to be reverent about stinging nettles but there's good reason for that. Nettles are cagey, they'll hide if you don't approach them with respect and you will not find them. Also, to me, even though I do this sort of thing every spring, it's something of a sacrament. Wild food, from God's hand.
It blows my mind, every time.
So, first, the heavenly feel of soft, uneven ground under my boots, so welcome after walking only on floors inside for months, or snow or ice or gritty sidewalks. Long soft grasses emitted the scent of green with every step. Nettles patches move around, of course, as nettles are wont to do, but they were about where I expected them to be; dozens of gay little reddish/green sprouts, still very small, in amongst the dry snow-flattened canes of raspberries and blackberries. Those canes crunched under my boots.
The nettles were awfully small, we probably should have waited another few days before we'd come but we couldn't. I barely covered the bottom of my (big) basket with them. Still, it's enough for a meal (they're cooking as I write, in a potato soup along with the fiddleheads Paul picked today) and some left over for drying. I'll get at least 2 more pickings out that patch before they're too long and weedy to eat, then we'll get another one or 2 pickings of the fall regrowth. I find it especially nice to pick there, not just because they are the best nettles I've ever tasted, not just because it's such a nice place, so clean, but also because Mr Haldeman gets it. He knows my gratitude at being allowed to pick there is heartfelt. I like that. I'll have to send him another loaf from my next batch of bread, in thanks.
After I picked the nettles I do what I love doing most, I drifted around. As I told Paul later, it's almost like being a leaf on the surface of a stream, I'm pulled along, this way and that, as if by some invisible current. A little eddy will catch me and I'm turned and held in place for a moment .. then I know to look up, or down, there's always something important to see.
Important? Ha, not really I suppose. There's nothing 'important' about a flash of yellow and brown amidst all that green, that turns out to be a small caterpillar climbing a blade of grass, but I wouldn't want to miss it. Or the patch of agrimony coming up in the warmth of the crumbling foundation of some old outbuilding. Or the shapes of the stag horn sumach bushes that look so exactly like the horns of a stag.
Nothing important in any of that, at all.