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Foraging with Headwaters Outdoor School


When you pursue great flavor, you also pursue great ecology” -- Chef Dan Barber

A Letter from JT on Headwaters New Wild Edible Plant Classes

Headwaters family and community,

This is a letter from JT, and I am inspired and excited to tell you all of some upcoming changes in our Santa Cruz Edible and Medicinal Plant classes! If you don’t know me, I am one of Headwaters core of young instructors committed to bringing forth a real sense of the passion, intimacy, adventure, gratitude, responsibility and deep reverence that comes from a sense of place and relationship with the more than human world.

My life here at Headwaters (HWOS) began when I first attended the HWOS plant class as a 16-year-old Santa Cruz kid. I still remember that November day when, like a veil of cloud lifted from an autumn moon, nature’s savory depth and creativity stood illuminated. Through all the small details, each plants use as craft and food, as well as their names, stories, folklore and ecology that little plant walk began to endow the world with a great sense of magic.

Eight Years ago in Nova Scotia I met Jeremy Frithe a man whom I will never forget. As a boy he grew up on the island of Bermuda and witnessed the devastation of the islands forests of Bermudan Cedars. Seeking adventure, nature and a new life Jeremy took his skills of forestry and farming into Canada. As a logger he faced a heavy reality of eating up another environment in his search to make a living. He found his own hands consuming the vast cedar forests of western British Colombia. Waiting for the right moment to leave he obtained enough information to stop clearcutting in the headwaters of a large and important northwestern river. In a challenging legal battle he ended his career as a logger; on one shoulder the grief soaked memories of the great forests of his childhood and on the other the toil, transformation and pride of a protected area known as the “Jeremy Line” securing the river with its source pristine and healthy.

He then moved to Cape Breton Island, an isolated eastern Canadian outpost and vowed to turn his own life into a prayer. He became the first of a generation of organic ecological farmers taking his observations of forestry and seeing them in his gardens and farm. From carefully tended woodlots he selected material for his creation and restoration of antique wooden tools, farm equipment and horse drawn carriages. He wrote songs and poems evoking an immigrant’s experience of finding love and a sense of home in the wild woodlands and shores of Cape Breton His food and flowers were grown with great love and great attention to the various peoples and other forms of life on the island. Always making sure to have the right variety of potato or vegetable for the unique ethnic appetites of various inhabitants.

His life was an attempt work with nature and to create something splendidly human. The attention to detail he gave each one of his crafts, animals or gardens was a hope that humanities short shortsightedness could be redeemed through integrity and beauty. Jeremy’s way of life asked me to imagine a world where all people reflected nature’s magnificence in their daily lives, through their food, shelter and subsistence. Jeremy passed away in 2009 in the winter, only a few months after I had met him and a few months before I would have had the gift of visiting him again. May his hands be seen in White Pine bark and his blue eyes be found foaming in the Bras D’ Or lakes or seeping from the evening light in distant hills.

A year later I found myself traveling again having left my dreams of Cape Breton in the memories of Jeremy’s passing. This time I was along a storied trail of religious pilgrimage in Ireland. I was on a walk to and around an old sweat house which hosted the sight of countless visions and innumerable pre-Christian ceremonies and which now housed a series of significant rocks and a small catholic chapel. In my wanderings I came upon decorated local priest. Revealing that I was not religious I felt no harsh judgment from him and we soon found the great pleasure of conversation. After hearing my story he shared his form of religion in which he described prayers as being “embodied” in walks, poems and gifts, just as he believed god was embodied in the elements themselves. He believed that meditation was stepping delicately without shoes over cold stones and wet grass. I found solace in his idea of spirituality prompted by relationship.

Like Jeremy and The old Priest I have been set on an old mostly overgrown path towards developing this form of connection. A pilgrimage: combing through fallen acorns, watching the sun set over the sea, finding ecstasy in cold emerald mountain waters. I am offering these plant classes in order to reflect a clear sense of place and shed light on the beauty of the more than human world.

Six years ago I went to see the popular James Cameron film Avatar on the urging of friends. They strongly spoke of its significance to someone in service to the natural world such as myself. They cited its timely parable: a magical natural society imperiled by a fixation on exploitation of resources for profit. I found the most strange and fascinating moment to be made up of the conversation that began as the film ended. All around me, the theater made stifled expressions of disappointment in contemporary life. Small defeated voices with unusual conclusions kept seeping forth “Why don’t we have plants that glow in the dark”, and “I wish the American Indians had real magic”. The theater-goers became a squabble of grumpy urban Pigeons realizing that their ancestral cliff dwellings have been replaced by concrete skyscrapers and their beloved meadows of windswept, wild and colorful seeds now yield only artificially enriched breadcrumbs. Amongst the crowd was a feeling of a world that could have been extraordinary but wasn't. Then came what was for me the great climax of irony when a clean cut, middle aged gentleman whispered to his friend with childlike wonder “ I wish… I wish that our world was that… beautiful”.

The mumbling gaggle of film goers dispersed amongst the popcorn vendors, soda machines and the neon posters for movies like “The Hangover” and “Zombie Land”. James Cameron’s imagined struggle for the Na’Vi and their world of embodied beauty had ended and although the natives, the humanitarian scientist and the plants and animals were victorious in the film, the bigger statement was that we were facing a harsh hangover as we entered back onto this earth.

Now what the heck does all that have to do with a foraging class? Well I must paint an alternative landscape to the disappointed one seen in the wake of Avatar. First I will go back to Dan Barber’s quote, “When you go in search of great food, you find great ecology”. From reading Dan’s book The Third Plate (the source of this quote) it seems that by the process of cooking and searching for flavor he may have just discovered some little trace of the beauty of wildness. Perhaps the vast, magical world is out there waiting for us to fall in love with and so venture into it?

Today I tasted a fresh Black Oak acorn and before its tannins had overridden my senses I was struck by its pecan-like, smoky flavors. I imagined a pillowy butterscotch scented dumpling made from leached acorn paste mixed with a freshly ground wheat. I dreamt of a warm amber oil pressed from its nutmeat. A friend was focused on the potential of a hydrosol with the quality of rose water made from the tough aromatic scrub of Antelope Bitterbrush growing in the oaks’ understory. Earlier this summer at HWOS we crested the summit of a 9000-foot ridge with only sheets on our backs to hold our limited gear and to insulate us from the cool subalpine nights. We were in search of a plentiful edible alpine lichen called Bryorio. We had to know everything we could discover about it, from the quality of its raw flavor on your tongue, to its host tree species. We combed field guides in search of such arcane details as the specific color of its spiral shaped psuedocyphellae, which can be seen only under a hand lens. With these many things in mind we gave our thanks and selected some of its long hanging hair-like appendages to pit roast into a delicious and unusual black cake. The finished flavor brought to mind morel mushrooms, the smoke from a peat fire and the texture and color of black licorice. Perfect for savory stews and to flavor hearty meat dishes.

In Avatar James Cameron actually duplicated living earthly creatures for his film. Throughout the film he displays only about 50 or so species of plants, animals, fungi etc combined, compared with California’s approximately 6500 plant species. Yesterday I was talking with Tim Corcoran, the founder of this school, who told me we had another offer for a survival TV show. Tim said to me “I would not have believed in the 90’s when I started this school that this stuff would become a television phenomenon.” Then he said “I think it is because many people are too lazy to get out of their own houses and get into nature. They miss it deeply and it is thrilling to watch others have that connection” I could only nod my head and think back to that day in the cinema and the man who uttered his earnest desire to live in a more beautiful world than the one he knew.

When I was a teenager I was one of those people yearning for a magical world. After eight years of getting outside, learning to work with my hands, to forage foods from the forest floor, offering my shoulders in restoration and beautification of land, cooking meals in handmade ovens and over open fires I can say that it is possible to find it.

Here at Headwaters we work very hard to make our own lives reflect some piece of the land upon which we live, and in that toil the magnificent and noble character of our home seems so much clearer. By working with the land we both experience its many wonders and we begin to blend with them as we see them more clearly. This leads me to my conclusion, I believe that in the spirit of Jeremy Frithe, we must hand fashion our hopes and dreams. Like Jeremy we can craft the raw material of our imaginations, and our memories into tangible, edible, working examples of human artistry. I believe that like our priest from earlier our prayers must become a walk without shoes, the contours of the little hills of our homes upon which we step may become embodiments of the gods themselves. I believe that, like the life of Tim Corcoran, nature must become not something to be merely watched but a daily act of stewardship and a chance at communion with the source of all life. In this way our only disappointment can be our own mortality and our limited ability to see the unending potential of life on earth.

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