Wild things

I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.

It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.

We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!

Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.

In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.

Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.

As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.

For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.

The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!

These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.

Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.

The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.

Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂

Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.

Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .

The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.

In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!

Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .

Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.

Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .

. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂

Autumn breezes in

I can smell autumn dancing in the breeze, the sweet chill of pumpkin and crisp sunburnt leaves.

Anon

What a surprise to wake to the sound of wind rattling around the eaves and a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the bedroom. Wind is a rarity here at the best of times but seems especially strange after the long, still, sleepy days of summer. Autumn usually creeps and sidles in so softly and slowly we barely notice but this year it has come knocking loudly on the door, all bluster and blow. Time to pull on my boots, get out there and revel in the change. 🙂

How different the morning light is already, the mountain tops in the distance sunlit as I start my walk but so much of the valley still cloaked in shadow. It’s cooler, too, with a new scent to the air: not the dank, dark mushroom smell of death and decay that will come later, but a deeper, earthier tone than of late, something that seems to reflect the subtle shift of colours in the landscape.

I’m not a fan of high winds, they can be disturbing and bring damage and destruction in their wake. A fresh breeze is another matter, though; there is something very energising about it, a sense of vitality and vibrant action that I love. There is mesmerising movement in the trees, a rippling dance shimmying through the undergrowth, a noisy, bustling, chaotic joie de vivre that makes me smile and quicken my pace. The equinox is behind us and yes, we have tipped beyond that point of balance but it is certainly not all gloom and doom and darkness: there is still plenty of joyful living to be done!

As a teacher, I was always aware that a windswept playtime would more often that not be followed by an unsettled session with fidgety, high-spirited, bright-eyed children; to be sure, it wasn’t ideal if there was serious work to be done, but in a way I used to feel there was something healthy and wholesome about the electric charge crackiling and fizzing through the classroom on windy days. It does us no harm to stir the pot occasionally, to shake everything up like a giant snowglobe and let it all settle into a different pattern. It’s what fuels creativity and innovation and stops us stagnating or becoming too predictable and set in our ways. Perhaps, childlike, we should all go out on a windy day and dance with the trees?

Autumn is generally associated with a carnival of colour but the days of bright fire are still some way off; the landscape here is still predominantly lush and green, yet walking through the woods, there are little hints and subtle touches that speak of what’s to come.

As the woodland path starts to drop towards the river, there is a more open space where I often saw roe deer grazing in late spring and early summer this year. When we first moved here, this steep slope had been recently harvested, and the landscape still bore fresh and ugly scars to show where towering eucalyptus had been felled and carted away to be pulped into toilet paper. It has been left to regenerate naturally and although the eucalyptus has come back (of course it has, try stopping it), there are plenty of young native trees in there, too, including birch, oak, cherry, holly and chestnut.

It has been a fascinating process to watch ~ proper rewilding in action, I suppose ~ and I love the eclectic colourful mix of the understorey. In spring it bristles with the white spires of asphodel, in early summer it is a sumptuous purple haze of bee-ridden foxgloves but at this time of year, the gorse is centre stage, all bright sunshine and coconut perfume.

In fact, there is still a wealth of wild flora available to those who feed on it; this season’s preferred colour combinaton is most definitely yellow and purple.

From colour to touch, and at this time of year I find I am drawn more than ever to textures with a deep, atavistic need to reach out and explore with my fingertips. From the bright, brittle symmetry of fern to the soft floaty fluff of seedheads, the jagged layers of a rock fall or perfect dome of a captured raindrop, the pompom flowers and glassy leaves of ivy and a dizzying choice of tree barks . . . I am in tactile heaven!

I’d hoped to find an interesting selection of fungi but they were very thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s still a little early but I did at least manage to spot a few, even if they weren’t the most inspiring.

One thing there is no shortage of is chestnuts. They are everywhere and it’s a dangerous business wandering about under the trees, especially in a wind, believe me; I can categorically state that being chestnut bombed is not a pleasant experience! They are a wonderful food, though, and a handful cooked with squash from the garden and a selection of warming spices makes a dish that is just perfect for the season.

So, like the circle of the seasons and the year, I came full circle back to our home, hair in a wind-teased tangle and cheeks feeling warmed and kissed by the busy breeze. The sun had climbed from behind the mountain, flooding the valley with light once again and the promise of a lovely day. There is still so much abundant growth, so much lush verdancy and it will be with us for some time to come. I’ve enjoyed my little taste of early autumn, the chance to blow the cobwebs out and waken my senses to the season, the change in the air . . . but I’m still enjoying the summery things, too, so let’s not rush! 🙂

How can you buy the sky?

Asturias is a land of contrasts: soaring, snow-capped peaks and shining ribbons of sandy beaches; chattering mountain streams and wide, lazy estuaries; lush green meadows spangled with flowers and a dramatic coastline, jagged and wave-beaten; the timeless tranquility of tiny, remote villages and the vibrant buzz of modern cities. Then, of course, there is the weather. Perhaps it is something contrary in my nature, or maybe because I’m British and ‘weather’ is in my blood, but I love the fickle spirit that is the Asturian climate. There is something energising about the speed and quality of changes, of how a rain-drenched landscape shrouded in cloud is transformed to a vista of green mountains printed in sharp relief against the clearest and bluest of skies in what seems like a matter of moments. One day, it’s all wellies and waterproofs, the next sandals and suncream. It’s a teasing unpredictability that breeds resilience, pragmatism and acceptance: life goes on, whatever. It’s only weather, after all.

Friday
Saturday
Sunday

At this time of year, we spend most of our time outside; we eat our meals out there and only drift into the house in the evening as the sun sinks in a dramatic blaze behind the mountain opposite. Once the new horreo floor is finished (something we can’t do until we are allowed to visit a builders’ merchants again), we will even be able to stay out in the pouring rain. At the moment, though, a wet evening does mean being indoors and last week, one such occasion saw us watching a free online film called Project Wild Thing. This had been recommended to me (thank you, Farn!) after I wrote a couple of posts back about how important I think it is for children to spend time playing and exploring outdoors.

It was an interesting film which raised several pertinent issues but what struck me most was how the driving force in the author’s efforts to connect children to nature was based on branding. I realised just how pervasive and powerful branding and advertising are in our society . . . but honestly, how did things become so complicated? How can you possibly ‘brand’ nature? and why on earth should it be necessary? (Please bear in mind, this is not in any way a criticism of the film; indeed, I had nothing but respect and admiration for the author’s intentions and efforts in trying to do a very good thing.)

Now I admit that I am definitely the wrong person to be asking or answering these questions as I am undoubtedly biased. First, the natural world is such a fundamental part of my life and being that I would find it impossible to extricate myself from its wonderfully beguiling tangle. I cannot imagine a life not spent outdoors and I am truly blessed in being able to indulge myself every day; my heart has gone out in recent weeks to all those who have been or still are totally confined to indoor spaces.

Second, I am a marketing company’s nightmare; I detest shopping, I feel no need to buy or accumulate ‘stuff’ and adverts bounce off me like hailstones on the roof. If I’m honest, I don’t even notice them; I am, in fact, completely blind to branding. Still, putting my prejudices aside, I really can’t understand why for one moment nature should need to be branded in order to make it appeal to children and the adults in their lives. This is not a consumable, it’s not the latest whizz-bang gizmo or this season’s must-have – it’s nature, for crying out loud. It just is.

The crucial point for me is that we shouldn’t have to polish and airbrush the natural world, blow it up on hoardings, flaunt it on the front of t-shirts or hand it out in shiny leaflets in order to whet people’s appetite. Nature is an incredible, astonishing, precious, fickle, dangerous, mind-blowing thing; it can’t be tamed or boxed or packaged or ordered online. We don’t need to buy it or buy into it. It’s out there – everywhere- if we just take the time to look. Turn your face upwards to the splatter of raindrops or the kiss of sunshine and you’re acknowledging nature’s presence. It’s really that simple. Isn’t it?

The ironic thing is, experience has taught me that children will revel in the simplicity of nature when given the chance to do so. As a primary school teacher, I would cart my class off to look round a zoo or aquarium where they could watch exotic species living in very contrived environments but without exception, they had far more fun and engagement doing bug hunts or wildflower sampling only a few steps from the classroom door. The best school ‘trips’ we ever had were the ones where we stayed at school and spent the day building dens, climbing trees and cooking over a campfire. Children will find a whole world in the eye of a daisy or the swirl of a snail’s shell if we just let them.

As if to prove a point – to myself, at least! – I decided to take my camera for a wellies-and-waterproof wander in the rain, trying to capture some basic images that had nothing whatsoever to do with branding. I wanted nature to sell itself simply by being, to prove that there is infinite wonder in the ordinary that far surpasses staged professional photo shoots of children cuddling tame frogs. The woods in the rain at this time of year draw me like a magnet; there is such a sparkling freshness to the air and I am captivated by the layer upon layer of green, all that burgeoing, verdant growth. True, in rainy weather the light level is relatively low and the backdrop of a china blue sky unavailable, but there is magic in that rain-spattered world. All the photos in this post apart from the first, third and fourth were taken on that walk and at no point was I more than a ten-minute leisurely stroll from home.

It worries me sometimes where I ‘go’ on these little ventures, becoming so absorbed in everything that I see that I lose all track of time or place . . . but that, I believe, is the whole point. I suppose some people would call it mindfulness, that complete focus on a single point, being ‘in the moment’ to the exclusion of all else but really, you can call it whatever you like. The previous day, I had wandered into the wood for a leg stretch (without the camera) and rounding a bend in the path, I saw a roe deer just a stone’s throw ahead of me. Thanks to a kind wind direction, she didn’t sense me despite my bright red waterproof coat and I was able to stand and watch her grooming and grazing for many minutes, before tiptoeing away; I didn’t want to carry on in case she had a fawn lying in the undergrowth nearby which is perfectly possible at this time of year. I am lucky enough to have seen deer in the wild many, many times but the sheer magic and wonder of watching a wild animal like this is never tarnished; standing stock still, hardly daring to breathe and being wholly taken up by this privileged window on a wild world, it’s a moment to treasure. It’s priceless, in fact.

The truly gratifying part is that such precious experiences don’t have to involve large mammals, either; there is so much that is extraordinary to be discovered in the ordinary. There is a wealth of wonder to be had watching the purposeful march of an ant trail, the expert weaving of a spider, the sing-preen-sing choreography of a garden robin. It is possible to be totally captivated by the play of dappled light through a tracery of leaves, the movement of water over shiny pebbles, the scudding of broken clouds across a windswept sky. There are great secrets hidden in miniature forests of moss, the pleated underskirts of mushrooms, the complex labrythine centre of a flower.

When you can capture the wash of waves in a seashell or a rainbow in a puddle, when you can feel the gentle tickle of a feather on your cheek, the soft whisper of snowflakes on your eyelashes, the rough fissures of bark or silky trickle of sand or sticky gloop of mud at your fingertips, you don’t need a logo or a slogan or a brand. Connecting with the natural world is as simple as rolling down a grassy bank, kicking up a pile of autumn leaves or tasting the sweet-sour burst of berry juice on purpled tongues . . . and I’m not just talking about children!

It comes as no surprise to me – in fact, I’m delighted – that doctors are increasingly ‘prescribing’ a dose of nature for a wide range of illnesses as an alternative therapy to drugs. The benefits to many aspects of our physical and mental health of exposure to fresh air and sunlight have been well-researched and documented; add time spent moving or simply sitting, observing, enjoying, being curious – whether in a wild, rural location, a suburban garden or a city park – and we have a wonderful recipe for well-being. It’s very, very simple. It’s totally free. Let’s get out there and enjoy it, young and old alike. No branding needed. No adverts required. 🙂