February 18, 2013
Originally posted on Les Chroniques Purple, February 16, 2013.
During a recent spell of particularly warm days a paper wasp appeared on the toilet wall. In subsequent days the temperature plummeted and (if she has moved at all) her movements have been barely perceptible. Coaxed from hibernation by the arrival of spring. Or, maybe not…
Although the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day the nights remain crisp—cold clear skies and shimmering stars. This cold dark energy has dominated the past months. During this time many plants concentrate their vital energy, their ki, in root systems sunk deep in the relatively warm soil. There are also plants that have hugged the ground closely protecting themselves from the brutal wind that whips up the valley. Now, here and there, fukinoto, the small buds of the giant butterbur, have begun popping up from the ground. Fukinoto we deep fry or boil and mix with miso paste. It is a bitter tasting plant. The bitterness of many spring wild edible plants stimulates the digestive system and helps flush out the residue accumulated through the winter’s heavier fare. Fukinoto is a plant that reminds us of winters passing and the arising of spring.
It is a commonplace that farmers or those who “live close to the land” are more keenly attuned to the seasons. For us, living as foragers and gardeners in a forest, what we have become more aware of is the bleeding boundaries of the seasons across time and space. Spring, summer, autumn and winter as discrete seasons with “official” starting dates—be they astronomical or calendar-based—seem to have little to do with the dynamic flow of constant and gradual change that we experience. The drum roll of spring beginning somewhere in the depths of winter. The fall crescendo building momentum in the torrid days of summer.
During February—usually the coldest month—the morning ground glistens with a carpet of frost. The chickens struggle to drink water through the crust of ice that covers their bowl during the frigid nights. Winter scenes to be sure. However, late morning, as the sun crests over the mountains to the south, a warm glow fills the valley and a different scene is revealed. The tiny white flowers of chickweed peek out from the plants’ increasingly lush growth. Thousands of frog eggs become visible (how long have they been there?) on the bottom of a small pond. The first tentative blooms appear in the tree canopy.
Behind our house a path cuts across the slope of the hill. Above the path, where the sun hits early, where a bamboo grove shelters the land from strong winds, where the slope of the hillside encourages frost to move along without settling, daffodils have been glorying in days of spring for weeks already. It is here that the florets of nabana, a wild mustard, can be picked first. Below the path, in the depths of the valley, where the sun comes late, where the land is fully exposed to the gales and where frost settles thickly it is still the midst of winter. Here the nabana will arrive much later but will continue producing delicious florets for much longer.
For the forager attuning to the seasons, or “eating seasonally,” is a deep practice. It is an invitation to learn the lay of the land intimately; to learn the precise gradients in temperature caused by the differing angles of the sun as it touches a hillside; to develop a sense of the microclimates offered by a rocky outcrop, a tree, a body of water; to observe where the soil is most, or least, fertile. We overlay this information with what we have learned from the plants: preferences in soil fertility and warmth, preferences in amount of sunlight exposure relative to air temperature, how much rain in which temperature range will spur the fruiting of a particular fungi… Of course this is not to be studied in books then applied in the field but learned by doing, slowly. And anyway, it can hardly be said that it is consciously applied at all but rather, in a most subtle way, the feet, the eyes, the hands are guided.
– Asako Kitaori & Dion Workman