When I was a little kid, my sister and I played outside constantly. We’d play until it was night and our mom would call us in saying “it’s dark, come in!” and we’d say “It isn’t dark yet!” and to our eyes it wasn’t— it was more blue than dark—and we’d play a little longer before the idea of dinner drew us in.
In those days, we were entranced by plants. I recall spending hours picking wildflower bouquets, especially from the abundant wild radish, which came in many color variations, mostly a light pink-purple but also white, and various shades of gold, red-ocher (my personal favorite) and purple tones. We picked mustards and lupins and many other flowers and greens. Low growing plants with white or peach flowers were intriguing but didn’t work in the bouquets, while dandelions had to be just at just the right open yellow flower stage or we couldn’t use them. We counted ten California poppies before picking one. We didn’t know the names of any of the plants except the poppy but it didn’t prevent us from loving them anyway and making salads of them that we never ate because they might be poisonous but we pretended to eat them because they just looked so good. We harvested and mashed in mortars acorns that we were forbidden to eat. We dug clay out of ditches and made sculptures and pots. We wove non-functional mats and baskets from creek-side reeds and watched deer and squirrels and rabbits, following their tracks in the mud. Once, when we were very quiet, we heard the deer talking with each other. We made forts in trees and mazes in the tall grassy fields and swam in the creek we weren’t supposed to swim in. One day, we dammed the creek trying to make a bridge across it with rocks, and learned what happens when you do that, quickly dismantling our bridge and instead constructing one that water could flow through. My sister found an arrowhead and we mused on what the first peoples of this land did here. I wrote a “book” on colored construction paper called “How the Indians Managed” which is a funny title because today I know that is indeed what they did, they managed the forests and meadows for maximum abundance.
I have long wanted to know these plants better, with regard to their names and uses. And yesterday I finally had that door open a crack. My husband Scott and I travel out to Matt Berry’s wild plant workshop at The Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, where I meet many of my old friends the plants and some new ones. We start the day with douglas fir pine needle tea. We learn that, yes, you can throw wild radish flowers into salads and eat them! And we learn about plantain, dock, mustard, miners lettuce, chickweed, nettles, wild onions, cattails, snakeweed, and many more.
For lunch we eat potato and greens soup with new zealand spinach (a thick leafed coastal plant that has a salty flavor), enjoy a fully flavorful miner’s lettuce and chickweed salad gathered by us a few minutes earlier, topped with different flowers including radish and calendula. We munch some cattail shoots, and elderberries, and spread onto fresh green leaves a mild, sweet goat cheese infused with figs and calendula petals made earlier by classmate Sequoia from the milk of the resident goats.
In the afternoon, we climb the hill and learn about lichens and trees, and even more plants abundantly growing all over the place. From the hill, the Pacific Ocean is visible, the Farrallon islands emerging ghostlike from the fog.
Later in the day, we make wild food bars, consisting of pulverized sunflower seeds, dried flours of wild mullein, nettles, and lemon balm, along with cooked elderberries and their syrup, all from the landscape we are immersed in. With a few golden flower petals on top and some rice syrup they are a hippie’s dream come true, and also delicious and infused with the energy of the place and about a million vitamins and minerals.
At the end of the day, I am exhausted and exhilarated, (and also allergic, from all the pollen flying around in the springtime wind) and while I have learned a lot, it feels like I barely know anything. The main thing is that my surrounding landscape is now a more open, understandable place. Some of the familiar plants I’ve lived with my entire life now have useful information assigned to them. If I can find an unpolluted source, there is a neverending supply of salad and berries and nutrient-rich, green flour.
Many of these plants are only found here and by using them, we have a unique experience particular to this region. Far from glamorizing the first nations people and their practices, these workshops provide this partially forgotten connection to place. No one is above using the vitamix to grind flour instead of the mortar and pestle or cooking elderberries down on a gas stove, even though the skills for firemaking and firecooking are known and used also. The point is to know the most sustainable ways of landscape interaction, add to them continually and use them in the wisest way possible.
There are more weekends coming up (click here for the schedule at regenerativedesign.org) that focus on acorn processing, hide-tanning, basket-weaving, and many more things that connect people with landscape and bring us a little closer to our unique place.
west marin oaks (photo by scott hess)
cattail shoots (from rdi website)
wild food snacks (from rdi website)