Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliatum) growing in profusion along a shady bank of Alder Creek in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara County.
Skills Are Weightless
“You have to travel light. . . And you have to be self-reliant. . . Bushcraft is a knowledge of nature that enables you to travel safely and relying upon nature to some extent for your sustenance, self support. It’s the knowledge our ancestors had. It’s the knowledge of First Nations. . . At its core is a love and understanding of nature.
Bushcraft transforms your view of the forest, that is for sure. In time you become much more perceptive. You look for tiny things in nature. It’s the small things that you notice that tell a big story. You gain this experience. . . With experience your subconscious can pick up all of those details and interpret them and use them to read the landscape.
The really sad thing is that when this knowledge is lost an interface with the land is lost. That’s the one thing that First Nations have that we should aspire to is this close tie to the land.”
-Ray Mears, “We Belong To It”
Miner’s lettuce was the first wild edible I learned to identify as a young boy, which is funny because the last thing I wanted to eat as a kid was something green and leafy that tasted bitterly of chlorophyll. Nowadays, however, I recognize what once seemed like trivial knowledge as great value.
The seasonal burst of annual herbs in the mountains of Santa Barbara County offers foragers an excellent opportunity to harvest wild edibles. Perhaps wildcraft is most valuable to overnight hikers far out on a distant trail in the remote stretches of roadless wilderness, where all supplies and most necessities to sustain and nourish the body, what so very little one can physically carry, must be laboriously lugged over rugged terrain in a backpack.
Wildcraft skills, like bushcraft, enable a person to limit the amount of bulk and weight they must carry on their back while in the forest. Knowledge and skills weigh nothing and take up zero space in a backpack.
What a person carries in their head they need not carry on their back.
Miner’s lettuce in bloom. The Chumash Indians harvested the tiny seeds for food.
A Typical Trip
Imagine a common backpacking experience. Let’s say we’re ten or twenty or thirty miles into the wilderness on foot, and for days we’ve been grinding away on and filling our bellies with nothing but dry and rehydrated foods.
Prepackaged backpacking meals, dense and grainy energy bars, nuts, jerky, pasta or maybe some warm and oily salami and cheese. It’s all decent trail food. But it sure isn’t fresh, succulent nor refreshing.
Nor does it invite one to look deeper and more keenly into the forest and ponder the natural value surrounding them, thus learning and acquiring a more intimate knowledge, understanding and, therefore, appreciation and respect for the wild world.
Johnny Jump-ups (Viola pedunculata) blooming beneath oak canopy in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
One afternoon on our multiple day hike we spend time collecting a bundle of fresh wild greens from the forest surrounding camp. Grabbing a stick, we dig up and clean a handful of Calochortus flower bulbs, toss them in olive oil and fry them up over the campfire or set them atop a rock beside the flame to roast, which we later toss into the salad mix for added flavor and nutrients. We pluck fresh wild peas from the vine. We collect a handful of edible wildflower blooms like Johnny Jump-ups to add a colorful eye-catching accent to the lettuce, nutty-flavored roasted bulbs and crunchy sweet peas.
We lightly toss the freshly harvested fare with a smidgen of honey mustard balsamic vinaigrette we whipped up fresh at home before we hit the trail. Using our trusty bush knife we slice off a handful of cheese shavings from a small chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano we’ve totted along, and we sprinkle a dash of black pepper to top it all off.
Well, it’s “good stuff, Maynard.” And good for you.
A Calochortus bloom seen along the Santa Ynez River.
Roasted Calochortus bulbs rank among my top five favorite wild plant edibles for their exceptional flavor.
There is also value beyond good flavor and fresh healthy sustenance. One great aspect of foraging is that it provides a wonderful reason to get out into the woods off-trail and roam and meander about in no particular direction, when one might not otherwise venture into the forest for lack of a reason to do so.
Many times a hike is almost entirely about the destination: a peak summit, a waterfall, a swimming hole, a campsite or sometimes it’s just for the exercise and fresh open air.
Foraging cuts against that all too common grain and encourages wandering into the less visited nooks and crannies. And in that ramble one never knows what they might find, either tangible or intangible, or how they may be enlightened and enriched.
Foraging is an activity that draws one closer to nature both in being observant and aware of minute seasonal details in the forest that otherwise, and often, go unnoticed, as well as in its requisite knowledge of native plants.
And when one begins to use nature, respectfully of course, it can lead to a depth of understanding and appreciation that, I think, is impossible to acquire by those people who treat the woods like a museum, something to be looked at but not touched, or those people who stomp down the trail only casting fleeting glances at their surroundings with little aim other than reaching their destination.
Foraging and wildcraft offer up, figuratively, new trails of adventure to explore. One may have hiked through a certain section of forest for years and never paid much if any attention to such fleeting seasonal details. In doing so they have missed the forest’s small embellishments that combine to create a much richer and interesting natural tapestry.
Perhaps nature is like a stereogram poster. It looks like one big blur at first glance, but if one gazes long enough an intricate and marvelous picture materializes that once was hidden from plain sight. All one must do is look for it.
Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia Pefoliatum) and Johnny Jump-ups (Viola pedunculata), two native California edibles which can be found growing together seen here along the Fremont Trail in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Don’t Just Survive, Thrive
Drawing on a little knowledge of nature, and with a bit a foresight and preparation, a backpacker far from the city can wildcraft a fresh, succulent and nutritious delicacy worthy of an classy urbane restaurant.
And while a salad may not alone serve sufficiently as an entire meal, I imagine the grim and rugged crowd scoffing at the thought of a wimpy salad after hiking all day in scorching sun, it surely provides an exceptional side dish to accompany whatever else is prepared in camp.
Although, when done well, that salad may just steal the show.
These wild peas are tender yet crisp, and sweet tasting. Their flavor may be as good as some of those one might buy at a grocery store, they’re just smaller in size. Toss ’em in a salad plain or collect a pot full to boil over the campfire and smother in butter or extra virgin olive oil.
Love your stuff man! Was just up in Murietta canyon checking on the blackberries, ran into islay cherries, miner’s lettuce, wild onions, blackberries and much more! Beautiful day, the creeks are running and tasting delicious! So many flowers! thanks for knowing the beauty and putting it out there!!
That’s a really nice wet spot up Murietta way, even in dry years like now. Never looked around much up there myself, but have passed through a few times. Nice color up there in fall with the maple trees turning yellow and set against the dark green of the lush canyon.
Thank you for this great writing on wildcrafting and gathering. I find that the wild food tastes different than the domestic. I wish I could eat it more of the time.
I forage quite a bit for my home food in spring and summer in the UK. I won’t eat flowers though (too pretty – seems a shame) or bulbs (as I don’t consider that sustainable) but will eat leaves and fungi. Consequently, my friend, who comes to stay with me often, won’t eat anything I’ve made as he suspects there might be some wild plant in it and, being a townie, he doesn’t trust that kind of thing at all! 😉