Category Archives: edible wild plants

fringe benefits

Back in the fall of 2011 I started collecting green wood from dump piles around town, and since I kept coming across new species I was soon gathering wood faster than I could use it.  In order to keep the green wood from checking before I could mill it or put it on the lathe, I took to stashing it in large plastic trash bags underneath the tables in my shop.  Some of that wood is still hanging around, including a section of figured maple that gave birth to this beauty:

My friends Garret and Sarah had come down to the shop for a tour one evening, and as Sarah rounded a table she asked, “Is that a mushroom?”  Indeed.  It had to have sprung up very quickly, as it would have been difficult for me to miss for more than a day or two.

As much as I love edible wild plants, I’ve always been timid about wild mushrooms.  But thanks to the distinctive morphology and complimentary spray of spores, I was able to identify these as Oyster Mushrooms– good eating!  I sampled a small section, and after no ill effects proceeded to fry up a plate full the next day.  I’d guess that the total weight of the harvest was about three pounds.  I gave half of it to my friends (finder’s fee!) and dried the rest for use in soups.

 

recent paintings

smoke-shaped forest, 22x 30, ink, shellac, and oil on paper, 2012

Last week I finished smoke-shaped forest, which continues a series reflecting on the simultaneous gains and losses associated with 200 acres of land being cleared adjacent to my parent’s property outside of Charleston, SC.  In such cases waste wood and plowed stumps are often stacked up and burned, and they create an eerily beautiful sight at dusk in that thick southern air.  Anyone who has ever sat around a campfire knows the seduction of staring into the coals, a kind of primal reverie of thought and thoughtlessness, comfort and fear, and the clear insistence of a light in the darkness.

broadleaf plantain with clover, 10 1/4" x 13 7/8", oil on panel, 2012

broadleaf plantain with clover is the first in what I believe will be a series of edible wild plant paintings, most of which can be quickly located in urban environments.  These are works about the act of foraging, which is another way of seeking a depth of experience outside of the dominant culture.  But they also raise questions regarding patterns of recognition and the problems associated with the indirect transfer of knowledge.  One of the classic problems of depicting plants is the method of depicting a “representative sample”.  That is, the collection or photographic documentation of a single plant does not account for the inevitability of variation, and this creates a reservoir of doubt.  Paintings are effective in communicating some types of specificity, but often at the expense of others.  The payoff of this more “scenic” method, in my mind, is that it describes more fully a set of relationships within a given habitat.  And just as my front lawn establishes criteria for fruitfulness, so does the limited context of my panel.

grackle with smartweed and clover, 14 1/4" x 17 1/4", oil on panel, 2012

grackle with smartweed and clover keeps up the thematic approach to ground-cover, and the act of looking down as a move out of the demands of the body and into the life of the mind.  Because the bird’s eye is denied to the viewer as a point of reference, the grackle straddles a space between life and death.

Capturing a Plum Blossom

Our first plum blossoms-- photo taken on April 9, 2011

Sung Po-Jen's "tilting bowl" plum blossom

In preparation for the birth of our daughter, we thought it might be fun to plant a tree.  Somehow it took four years for this plan to actually be accomplished, so I planted four trees across our front yard instead of just one.  We have two apple trees, a cherry tree, and a plum tree which have now survived their first winter, and during the first week of April I was happy to see the first blossoms appear on the apple and plum trees.  It reminded me of one of my early introductions to Chinese poetry, Sung Po-Jen’s Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom.  The book is described as what might possibly be the world’s first printed book of art and literature– it was first published in A.D. 1238, and the image above is reproduced from the edition of 1261. The poems are composed of just four lines, but are packed with complex references, implications, and shades of meaning.  Translator Red Pine was kind enough to follow each poem with a commentary through which we can gain some insight into the mind of a 13th century scholar.  I include one of my favorites, below, which relates to the blossoms in my front yard as I so recently saw them:

39    Tilting Bowl

fill it and it empties

more or less are both mistakes

all things have a balance

don’t think this one isn’t right

 

This “bowl-on-a-swivel” was placed next to the throne to remind the emperor that whatever was full would soon be empty.  Only when the bowl was half-full was it stable.  According to Hsun-tzu, Confucius saw a device like this in the ancestral hall of Duke Huan: “An attendant poured water into a container that hung at an angle.  As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright.  But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position.  Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty!'”

— Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, by Sung Po-Jen,  The Chinese Classic Translated with Commentaries by Red Pine, Introduction by Lo Ch’ing

foraging

wild persimmons

wild persimmons

Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) acorns, shelled and unshelled

Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) acorns, shelled and unshelled

roasted acorns

roasted acorns

ginko nuts, shelled and unshelled with skins still on

ginkgo nuts, shelled and unshelled with skins still on

ginko nuts with eggs and potatoes

ginkgo nuts with eggs and potatoes-- yum!

Foraging has become a central concept in my work, from salvaged wood to yard trash.  But this fall I made a more literal effort to expand my diet of foraged foods.  Although the persimmon fruit pictured above were gathered on a camping trip in Illinois, there are plenty of options to be found right here in the City of St. Louis– some items no farther than the front yard.  My snack food and side dishes included hickory nuts, black walnuts, acorns, persimmons, wild greens, and ginkgo nuts.  The roasted acorns were a surprise, as they had a strong aroma and flavor of toffee.  Chinkapin oaks are known for having some of the sweetest acorns (the term is relative, believe me) and these were just over the threshold of “edible” without my having leached out any of the tannins.  Ginkgo nuts start out nasty, as the smelly flesh needs to be stripped away.  But the nut meat is generous and the shells are thin (a stark contrast to the black walnuts).  They are a lot like little potatoes, starchy with a slightly bitter finish.  I found them to be great with eggs, salted and peppered.  Foraging, like art-making, tends to lean away from immediacy/efficiency and towards process.  The “important” part precedes and exceeds the moment of consumption.  It requires good timing, a search, preparation, consumption, and comes with a sense of satisfaction that lends itself well to reflection.  It encourages first-hand knowledge, increases our appreciation of natural cycles, fosters independence, and rewards the observant.  One might even argue that foraging is an art unto itself.