Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Suggestion of Madness: Euell Gibbons

New Mexico, 1926. The Dust Bowl has held the state in its grip for over a year now, and where there is no water, there is no work. The head of the Gibbons household is riding the rails, looking for employment. Weeks pass; no word. Back in New Mexico, his family are down to one egg. No-one will touch it.

So fifteen-year-old Euell throws a gunny sack over his shoulder and heads for the hills. Forty years later, he would muse, "Wild food has meant different things to me at different times. Right then it was... a way to keep from dying."

Euell Gibbons packed a lot of living into his sixty-four years. By turns a carpenter, cowboy, trapper, prospector, hobo, labour organiser, vaudevillian, soldier, boatbuilder, mental ward orderly, beachcomber, teacher, student, and novelist, he was also, at various times, a Southern Baptist, a Communist, an alcoholic, and a Quaker. Along the way he married twice, and lived in every region and many states of the US. But the thread that wound through all of his adventures was foraging. Sometimes he hunted wild foods for the challenge, sometimes for variety. In Hawai'i, flat broke and living in a mat-walled shack, he threw sumptuous parties with food collected from the beach and jungle. And sometimes, Gibbons foraged just to stay alive. That bleak day in New Mexico, young Euell fed himself, his mother, and three siblings on rabbit, wild garlic, wild potatoes, and puffballs. With prickly pears for dessert.

Ultimately, more by accident than design, Gibbons became the world's leading authority on wild foods. Bulrushes, wintercress, coltsfoot, mulberries -- it was all money in the bank to him. Thanks to his peregrinations, he could find a meal in any field, forest, or vacant lot in North America. In his first book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons advanced the startling suggestion that wild edibles are not merely survival rations, but gourmet fare. "On the whole," he explained, "people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spend so much time exterminating." Asparagus, published in 1962, and the short shelf of volumes that followed, kinked a final twist into a lifetime of bumps and grinds: the skills Gibbons acquired to weather poverty and rejection, made him rich and famous.

Gibbons' philosophy dovetailed nicely with the "back to the land" movement of the 1960s, and his exploits made good copy. He speared carp with a pitchfork from horseback. He pit-roasted a Georgia pig, Polynesian style, with a side of palm hearts. He produced haute cuisine from Central Park weeds. He foraged on the White House lawn.

By November 1967, his name had become a household word. In that month, writer John McPhee accompanied Gibbons on a six-day trek through the Pennsylvania hills, fuelled by foraged food alone. In spite of the inhospitable season, they gained weight. In a memorable New Yorker article, McPhee reverently proclaimed that Gibbons' passion for found food held "a suggestion of madness".

Euell Gibbons' celebrity, barely conceivable in our time, rested on the incredible breadth of his experience and his skill at sharing it with others. His writing, still fresh half a century later, blends technical precision with anecdotes about his successes and failures, and the fine points of practice that come only of first-hand experience. Of his first knotweed pie, he confides, "the less said, the better". He ponders whether the strength-building reputation of burdock isn't due to the effort required to dig it up. His many wine recipes are attributed to a "drinking uncle"; he himself, he says pointedly, doesn't drink.

Even in stardom, Gibbons remained remarkably grounded. He continued to forage, though he told McPhee he'd learned not to admit it to onlookers, because they'd insist on feeding him. He attended his Quaker meeting and taught Outward Bound. Most of all, he made foraging acceptable to the mainstream. If books on wild edibles (including my own) continue to sell, it's because Euell taught us that weeds are good.

(A version of this article originally appeared in The Herb Companion. Signed and dedicated copies of The Neighborhood Forager, my guide to wild edibles, can be had by contacting me directly. Unsigned copies can be purchased from Amazon.)

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

WW: Union Station, Portland

(Because that's how we roll. 'Nother brilliant photo by Zen droogie Dannon "The Robert Doisneau of the Cellphone" Raith.)

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Face of Power

I found this guy beside the compost bin last November. His legal name is Taricha granulosa, but his friends call him the rough-skinned newt. (And here in the woods we call him a waterdog.) This lot are pretty much year-rounders on the North Coast, liable to show up on rainy roads and trails, night or day, in any season. Along with the Pacific chorus frog, they're a fixture of rural life here.

They're also personable little fellows, unfrightened, if slightly irritated, by handling. (A close relative, the firebellied newt, is often sold in pet stores.) In fact, fearlessness is a waterdog trademark, as they often hike hundreds of yards, in the open and in broad daylight, from the ponds where they live and breed.

This is not exactly courage on their part, however; Taricha is also one of the most poisonous creatures on earth. Let an attacker get the slightest bit mouthy with one, and a droplet of tetrodotoxin will sear its tongue and throat like molten iron. There will follow much choking and flailing, with convulsions and foaming at the mouth, progressing to paralysis, and finally, not nearly soon enough, a severe case of death. There is no known antidote, and so far as we know, only one creature on the entire planet is immune.

Of course, this may be cold comfort if your attacker has already bitten your leg off. But that's just an inconvience for my little sangha mate here: he can grow that back. Or an eye. Or a jaw. Or an intestine. Or his spinal chord. Or his heart.

So get a good look at this face: this is what true power looks like. Complete absence of violence or arrogance. No monologuing, no trash-talking, no machismo of any kind. He's a dumpy little blighter, without lurid fangs or claws or rippling muscles. And he could kill you, horribly, without lifting a Muppety finger. He knows it, too; that's why he doesn't have to prance and swagger.

Remember that next time somebody starts making speeches about power and glory.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

WW: Last winter's done, next winter's begun

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Wha Daur Meddle Wi Me

The dysentery continued working down into my gut, and I continued pouring tea and curry on it. Bit by bit, dump by dump, I ground ahead. But supplies were dwindling, and soon I would run out of several key munitions. It was a question of who would give out first, the bugs or I.

That was the week the Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare) came into bloom. I struggled to find no significance in this. There are no omens. All the world is cause and effect; anything more is superstition. Distraction, and time and effort lost to the Great Matter.

Yet all my heritage is avid for signs. Scot. Seafarer. Old Settler. Hell, just country boy. Always vigilant for a catfish moon, a mushroom blow, a snow day. And so I can't help but catalogue the seemingly random – seemingly because they are – associations around me. A song on the radio becomes a portent of whatever it is I'm driving to; events clustered in a given month mark it forever as a shoal or channel of fortune.

And now, when I was mired in fear and menace, an auspicious mauve salute. For thistle is dear to my father's people. In 1263, challenged by a rapidly coalescing Scottish kingdom, Norway's King Haakon IV attempted to enforce his claim to Scotland's Western Isles. Legend holds that during the Battle of Largs, Haakon's army sent scouts ahead to open a daybreak charge on the indigenous positions. Running girded and barefoot in the night, the Norsemen made good time, until they encountered, just short of the Dunkeld lines, a patch of patriotic thistles. The cry they let out allowed the Scottish knights time to horse up. The resulting battle was a draw, which is as good as a defeat to the defender, and a great whack of modern Scotland became Scottish by law as well as right.

Thus the prevalence of the thistle, spiny vindictive weed bearing blossoms of heart-pricking loveliness and delicacy, in Scottish symbology. And the steely threat, unannealed by Latin flourish, embroidered below Scotland's Royal Arms: "No-one touches me with impunity."

Well, it was the season for Scottish thistle, and I could have fallen sick any time. Flowers bloom for Scot and Scandinavian alike; the sight of these, in that place, at that time, was purest coincidence. Still, I could swear as I passed that day I heard a cheery, scowling expletive.

In Gaelic.

(Tent weel wha these dafties stramp.)

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Scotland's Royal Arms courtesy of WikiMedia Commons and a generous artist.)

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

WW: Good advice

(Found on my beach, 150 miles from the one it came from.)

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Rule

A hermit is a monk living by a rule of his or her own authorship. This differs from the more familiar cœnobites, who live by a rule written by someone else, such as St. Benedict, St. Francis, or Dogen. Cœnobite vocations are typically patrolled by a single living brother or sister (their abbot, master, or teacher), who claims sole right to interpret the founder's intent.

Notwithstanding we founded monasticism, (as well as most religions), there has always been tension between hermits and cœnobites. The latter often rebuke us as frauds, slackers, or lunatics. (In fairness, we judge them as well, as predatory hypocrites enslaved to worldly dharmas.) Profane society in particular looks upon eremitical monasticism with a jaundiced eye; it is a great believer in credentials.

Meanwhile, I am a great believer in practising what you preach, and also in not wasting my time. Hence I am a hermit.

When I became a monk, the rule I took was I am determined to live properly until I die. It may appear simplistic to some, or over-general. But I have found that the greatest temptation, and the most deadly, is to leave the path. To take another apart from, and often contrary to, the founder's teachings, by way of comfort or expedience. The most pernicious are those that sell themselves as a bridge back to the core teachings. (Hence the draw of the monastery.) Yet the founders have all said that the true path is through the river. There is no dry-footed enlightenment.

Within days of taking it, my Rule sprouted two dependent vows. And those vows generated subvows.

1. I will remain a monk for the rest of my life.
    a. Nothing will end my practice.
    b. I am the final authority in my practice.

2. I will honour my karma.
    a. I will not own a bed.
    b. I will not initiate courtship.
    c. I will not work at violent or harmful tasks.
    d. Fear of consequence will not rule my decisions.

A day or two later, a third surfaced: I will not record any more vows. I didn't record it, nor any other of the twenty-odd that eventually formed my one-man constitution. Written law invites sophistry.

So I could not, if I tried, recite them all. But they come when called, potent and unwangled, and always judicious: I will do what I can. I will leave others to their conclusions. I will practice Zen.

That last one is a killer. Try it.

I dare you.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of ISAKA Yoji and WikiMedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

WW: Sourdough crêpes stuffed with nettles and ham under hollandaise

(Because the rich are idiots. [Full disclosure: I made it with cream of chicken soup and spam this time. But they're still idiots.]
Nettle information here.)
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