And we’re back….
Since moving onto the bus, and more importantly since Sam and I stopped receiving regular paychecks, we have occasionally supplemented our diet with wild animals and plants. What first began as a series of novel, often gruesome experiments, has now become something we have come to depend upon, a routine, a way of life.
We began eating wild animals and plants in Miami under the guidance of our friend Cassidy Fry, who at the time had just returned from a Permaculture placement in Australia. Communally we killed and ate a rogue rooster, a local river duck, a faceless iguana (infamously featured on COLLASUS) and our own domestic hen – we had intended to bring the hen (3 of them) on the road with us, but they produced so few eggs and we were so disorganized that it made sense to eat them. In hindsight we are glad that we did.
The consumption of wild animals – and here I make a very definite distinction between wild and homeless – although voluntary is something we have had to grow used to in many respects, not least on a sensual level. Far from being an acquired taste, wild fare can sometimes be downright revolting and despite the fact this probably has more to do with our culture’s habitual ignorance of food – an understatement of the unfortunate effects of industrial agriculture that among other things have resulted in reduced food variety and a population divorced from the reality of food who trust of overly processed, chemically adulterated, sweetened, unquantified stodge from unknown sources – the notion of eating for pleasure would do well to be shelved along with any residual domestic squeamishness. With the exception of fish, ‘game meat’ is often much tougher and less flavorful than any you would find in any store and unlike store-bought meat, whose relative preparedness provides for a proven-palatable level of detachment, any enjoyment derived from the consumption of wild flesh stands to be beset by the present memory of the creature’s often gruesome death and butchery.
However, in spite of how generally unrewarding and downright upsetting killing an animal for meat might be, the creature rarely dies in vain. At the end of the day, it’s day, you are fed, hopefully a little wiser, and certainly a lot closer to making your peace with meat, if you haven’t already. Its healthy, physically and emotionally – more often than not a lot healthier than store-bought meat, character building too, and whether you fish, trap or actively hunt with lets say a gun or a bow you take the consumption of meat into your own hands, which is an important step, I feel, towards owning your own means and generally getting real.
You could of course do without meat. Its certainly a lot easier on the stomach and the heart, but in many respects a lot harder (pound for pound meat, no matter how old or skinny the animal was, will sustain you much longer than plants) and, depending of course on what hunting there is available, probably a lot more dangerous too. For unlike wild animals whose habitats and inherent defenses are well known and can be engaged or avoided at will and whose diseases (or rot in carrion) are more often than not plainly obvious, wild plants, even those that might appear benign or even delicious, can be deadly and are probably growing much closer than you might think!
During our prior incarnation in Miami, when we lived in one spot, we grew herbs, occasional veggies, we were host members of an organic produce club and we had friends that either lived on or worked on farms or plots where community level food production was going on. As a result we fancied we knew more than the average couple about growing and preparing food. While this might have been true, all that became irrelevant when we became nomadic and could no longer wait to grow food. In particular, we could no longer control what foods were available around us and we realized, very quickly and with some measure of doom, that we knew almost nothing of what was edible.
In our defense, the majority of our time prior to leaving was spent on readying ourselves logistically. We barely granted ourselves time to become proficiently acquainted with basic mechanics and hit the road without running water, let alone a having done adequate research into wild food field guides and such. But, as with the basic mechanics, we have been learning on the job. Learning what we need to when we need to and mercifully by few mistakes so far. And make no mistake, as the fearful, wistful imaginings of my dear mother attest, a mistake with either this bus or a survivalist diet could prove fatal. Thankfully, however, we are in no rush – the luxury of time now is something that we have in abundance, if little else – so we can afford to be careful.
Since arriving to our current location – an expansive 36 acre swath of marshy, family owned woodland in upstate NY with naught but a well, a few condemned sheds and a menagerie of vehicles from buses to backhoes to snowmobiles all in various states of [dis]repair – we have been steadily acquainting ourselves with available wild foods and the means by which those with few conventional means live.
We parked up here alongside the Pink House Bus shortly after Harper’s 2nd birthday (June 5th) so that both Transit Antenna teams could work to resolve their respective issues, effectively laying ourselves up, mechanically speaking, for an indefinite period of time. After about a month, with a list of jobs still pending, Ray and Felicia left back to the city for a series of performances, but we have been here on and off ever since. In fact most recently, owing to a busted radiator that we are only now just on the verge of finding a reasonable replacement for, we haven’t had the capability to leave even if we had wanted to, and now, owing to spate of bad weather – over two weeks and counting of pretty much constant rain which culminated in hurricane Irene – the ground beneath us has turned to chocolate fudge and so now we are literally, wholly stuck. Thankfully, however, though situations are always liable to change, we have been welcome here and not only has it been our good fortune to break down in such a friendly, resourceful, albeit muddy place, but we have been doubly blessed with proximity to an abundance of edible plants (that are thriving in the damp) and various knowledgeable transients who have aided our familiarization with them.
As part of their education we have encouraged the kids to learn about and be cautious of nature. At first they were just curious, perhaps a little repulsed, but now they enthusiastically identify and enjoy clover, sorrel and black, blue and elder berries, and are surprisingly open to try new things, and unfazed by the reality of their procurement. Take for an example some choice ingredients we juggled a few weeks ago…
We had been left on the land without transportation when those by whose grace we have existed these past months left for a week to work a gig a few hours away. After we tearing through our freezer stock of meat – hearts, kidneys and such from our friend’s farm in Virginia – we began to get a little hungry and began target practicing with a BB gun with the intent of shooting ourselves a fat squirrel. With our sights set we ventured into the woods. Ray had a keen eye, but seemed fixated on songbirds and chipmunks. After marking a few burrows with zip ties and getting disheartened by rain and an abundance of wily old crows we headed home. Then we remembered the snakes. For days we’d seen snake after snake slithering away from us into the knotweed. The next day, creeping around the property with Mateo and a grumbling belly I caught my first snake. Then my second, then my third and so on…
The first meal I made with the snakes was a flop. As with the faceless iguana, I marinated the snakes in seasoned citrus juices and apple cider vinegar for an hour or so, then attempted to stew them. I got a bit happy with the spices (owing to a new spice rack – pictures yet to come), one thing led to another and we were suddenly faced with a snake vindaloo stew with egg noodles and potatoes. We picked at it a bit but apart from Harper who ate all the snakes – which came out looking and feeling like giant rolled anchovies – we all went to sleep a little dissatisfied that night.
The next day however, Sam made an amazing pie crust that we filled with the remaining stew and Felicia gathered cattails, shook all the pollen out of them and used it as a flour substitute to make a batter that she then fried day lilies in – in hedgerows throughout the area and all around the bus these amazing orange lilies grow all summer and guess what? You can eat them any way you please. Exercise caution, however, as a small percentage of people are said to have adverse reactions to day lilies. Regrettably Felicia, who was plagued by stomach cramps the next day, is apparently within that unfortunate group.
In spite of Felicia’s illness the snakes vindaloo stew pie with cattail pollen fried and sautéed day lilies has to rank as one of my favorite, most resourceful meals to date. And again, the kids loved it, even Mateo who had previously turned his nose up at the vindaloo aspect.
Since the carnage that preceded the snake meals, our vegetarian hosts returned and the practice of communal mealtimes that we had previously engaged in continued, turning our attention out of consideration for their sensibilities from fauna to flora. The woods and weeds became the subject of our inquiry and with the help of the Internet and a National Audubon Society book on wild mushrooms we made daily ventures, baskets in hand, to collect and identify the various species of plants and fungi growing on the property. After freaking ourselves out with a few early experiments and the realization that poison hemlock was everywhere we began to focus on the mushrooms.
We began by eating mushrooms of the variata Russula – fairly common, crowded gill mushrooms whose genus is composed by around 750 species world wide – but we found them to be so consistently slimy and infested by little black bugs that we soon graduated from them and many of those described in the book as just edible to those listed as good and even choice, of which there are many. Though not fortunate enough to be in an area where superstars such as morels grow, we have been privy to some pretty sought after species such as chanterelles, Caesar’s mushroom, lobster mushroom, various coral and oyster mushrooms, toothed fungi and chicken mushrooms (pictured) that grow in huge clutches and although not in ‘our’ woods they have been found numerous times on outings.
We’ve also come into contact with some poisonous mushrooms such as the infamous Destroying Angel, various amantias – such as the infamous amantia muscaria or flyagaric – and the red mouth bolete, a beautiful burnt sienna and lemon colored mushroom, and the only bolete reputed to the poisonous, whose flesh instantly turns dark blue when exposed to the air.
However, however frightening this might seem, especially when you have carried a poisonous mushroom back home with you, most that we found would only cause mild to severe gastric upsets lasting a few days and/or hallucinogenic properties lasting a few hours. A few though are certainly not to be trifled with causing anything from kidney failure to certain death.
As unlikely amateur mycophagists we aren’t nearly sophisticated enough to use terms like mycorrhizal and basidiomycete in a sentence, but we do know some things about what fungi are – their various classifications, incarnations and how they ‘live’ – and how to safely turn them into a resource – the various methods of detection, identification – such as spore prints, attached and detached gills and so on – what to avoid – such as oat spots and certain specimen found growing on certain trees – and how to prepare and cook them.
All guides will tell you to never eat a mushroom without positively identifying it for just such reasons, but while I agree with this sentiment entirely, I feel its also important to play devil’s advocate by saying that, at least in my own sensual style of shroom hunting, I always nibble a bit of most every thing I find as I find it enables me to identify it better and I have head that mushrooms are more often than not only seriously dangerous if eaten in quantity, for example if you make an entire meal of them such as a mushroom stroganoff. On the whole though, sensitivity to mushrooms vary from person to person, in fact certain mushrooms can create a cumulative poisoning effect so that mushrooms you have enjoyed many times before can suddenly make you sick. Generally speaking, or rather logically speaking, its probably not worth all the risk to eat wild mushrooms that you picked yourself, I mean they’re nice and all but worth dying for? Probably not. Regardless of this we’ve still enjoyed ourselves and find shrooming, just like berry picking, adds a welcome dimension to our nature walks.
Maybe its being on undeveloped land that makes us want to live off it. Maybe its because we have little money and few means to travel at the moment. Maybe we are preparing ourselves for some form of culture collapse. Maybe its just novel. Whatever the reason it feels right, and although I can’t speak for the group, I personally don’t feel like a tourist. That said my standards are famously low and have no doubt prepared me well to find comfort in even the most extreme living situations.
On that note, in addition to grabbing bagels off of the street one night in Brooklyn, since we have been up here we have also been eating a lot of food that came out of dumpsters. Initially I was skeptical, not that food was in them or that it could be gotten, but that it would be worth eating, but seriously, having been on dumpster runs and seen what you can get, its all true. Grocery stores throw away perfectly good food. Fresh, in-date, clean food – bread, cakes, fruits, vegetables, eggs, fridge cold meats and beer too! Granted sometimes there is something wrong like a rotten sweet potato or a broken bottle that spoils a case, but generally stores just throw away perfectly good food. Why? Because it simply costs them less to throw it out than put it on sale and allow it jeopardize the profit of their regularly priced stock.
All our food dealings of late have been an education, but it’s the dumpster diving in particular and a general intimacy with waste (we currently use a Wild West-style outhouse) that has helped us to really connect with the necessities of food and in particular think about close cycle systems. When you see evidence that you can live off land, poop in that same land and not rely so heavily upon industrial agriculture or sewerage systems, then the use of chemical fertilizers (not to mention chemical pesticides) to enrich otherwise depleted soil to the end of artificially drawing nutrients into crops when perfectly good, in fact ideal fertilizer is flushed down the toilet en masse every minute seems totally counter productive.
With any change or anything new, practices and ideas that might at first appear uncomfortable or radical just take getting used to. You’ve only got to adjust your way of seeing to incorporate them. The more you strive to know, the more you experience and the more you experience, we have found, the more open and flexible you become. Being in that frame of mind, or in our case perhaps frame of life, we’ve found possibilities opening up everywhere. Similar to the support we receive from readers, companies, bus nuts and average folks, nature, too, (and perhaps even a sentient universe) is helping us along our way. Wild mushrooms are everywhere. Day lilies line the sides of roads, largely untouched. Having little basis for comparison in the United States, I am not sure if food is as abundant elsewhere, but here in upstate NY, at least during summertime, it’s everywhere, disguised by [false] association as weeds, vermin, or trash.Show on map