(Originally published in Spring 2022 issue of Edible Ojai & Ventura County) By Jess Starwood
Once an outright necessity of humankind, foraging for one’s sustenance in the wild had taken a backseat to the commercial food system, fading into obscurity and lingering only in stories of past generations—all in favor of that which is fast, aesthetic and convenient. Food has become safe, predictable, and mundane for the past hundred years. For most, if you are hungry, an easy meal is never too far away.
However, with a worldwide pandemic suggesting the very real possibility of empty food shelves in addition to entire populations quarantining without much to do, folks quickly found themselves curious about how to feed themselves if the system really did shut down. For most, it was the first time they had been confronted with an empty food shelf or the near-catastrophic shutdown of the restaurant industry. Food needed to be found. Many turned to gardening, others turned to foraging. These uncertain times prompted the biggest surge of interest in foraging during modern times. Sprinkle in an dose of dopamine for instant social-media fame by posting tidbits of regurgitated factoids sidled up to a snapshot of a funky mushroom and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the latest and hottest trend circling the internet of young adults showing off their newfound hobby. Hungry not just for backyard weeds and fungi, but also for those likes, follows, and shares for their latest “discovery.”
These nascent foragers are just far enough removed from earlier generations to not be able to learn about these modest traditions of everyday life from their elders that may have harvested huckleberries and hunted morels—surprisingly, all without today’s digital fanfare. Rather, these modern foragers are garnering their knowledge (and fame) from the visually flashy video clips paired with catchy tunes on TikTok and other platforms, soaking up the sound bites and passing them on to the next follower.
With renewed interest for the little bit of nature we have left around us, are these hoards of freshly minted foragers trampling about in the woods picking every fruit, berry and mushroom in their path causing harm to the environment? Or is this practice cultivating a new perspective on how, in dire times (which we are not out of the woods from yet) that we may someday need to rely on in this fragile and shrinking natural world around us? It just as well may be opening eyes to how destructive our blind consumerist habits have been on these rich and diverse wild communities that were once seen as “empty space.” Research has shown that once people understand nature has personal value and have developed a relationship with it, they become invested in its future and see it as something worth saving.
Foraging comes at a time when a relief from the fast-paced, manufactured, ready-made virtual landscape is needed most. While the pandemic brought people outdoors, it also brought us deeper into the digital realm more than ever before as the world embraced a new way to connect in all facets of our daily lives. It’s no wonder people found respite in a walk in the woods. Finding your own food in the wild requires a much slower gait than the typical Trader Joe’s run. Foraging gets our hands dirty. It’s tactile and ever-changing. Predictable, yet often surprising, it fosters a study of nuances and opportunity. Foraging requires a discernment between that which is edible or poisonous and a real-life investigation of its growing conditions. Nothing is neatly trimmed, cleaned and packaged—just raw, natural and untamed.
Will foraging replace commercialized and ready-made foods? Most likely not. The work that goes into collecting, processing and preparing a completely wild food diet is time consuming in a modern society known best for its insatiable desire for instant gratification. But by honoring the practice for what it is and using it as a catalyst for reconnection with ourselves and the fragile yet resilient natural world around us, foraging can help people to balance the fast paced virtual landscape that is slowly taking over our lives. Modern day foraging cultivates a sense of wonder and discovery in a familiar yet strangely unfamiliar world that we live in. Will it last into the post-pandemic years? Possibly—especially as growing populations continue to increase and dwindling food choices are available, wild foods will continue to have an appeal. Will the wilds be overrun with the latest wave of social media fame-seekers trampling the fragile wildflowers and digging up native species just to make a few bucks or even more valuable—likes, shares and follows? While it may be a passing fad for some, but for others, this newly established connection with the environment will give reason to protect, support and honor the valuable land that we live in for generations to come.
As I start to wrap up my fifth summer of solo travels, I can’t help but look back on the journey so far. Five years ago I hopped in my Subaru and explored through all the western states, traveling alone for the first time in my life. It was eye opening and life-changing, which led to more and more adventures and stories to tell. (Have I told you about that time with the bear..?)
This summer I was ready to push myself a little bit more and the solitude of Alaska was calling (but was hard pressed to actually find much of that). I had originally planned to rent a Jeep and take ten days to trek up and back down the Dalton Highway just to dip my toes in the Arctic Ocean, and maybe a few nights backpacking in the Gates of the Arctic NP. But with the car rental shortage issue I wasn’t able to make it happen this time, so I had to come up with some other plans.
My mom was not too thrilled with my choice of adventure this year and was convinced that I would be eaten by a grizzly bear (by the way, I felt waaaaay safer in Alaska than I ever do in California). Even though I have no problem traveling alone in the wilderness and taking care of myself, I realize there are still so many more of my personal edges to push. I ran up against one of those edges I just couldn’t cross this time around. One of my biggest fears is flying and it took 15 years to overcome just to get on a commercial flight. In a moment of courage, I booked the last spot for a flight on a float plane that left at 5:45am the next morning to Kenai peninsula to watch and photograph bears feeding on salmon in the river. However, the weather turned bad within those later hours and the pilot canceled the flight. Disappointed I headed back north hoping the weather there was better before it was time to go home. It came highly recommended to do a flight seeing tour of Denali on a small plane and my adventurous spirit was ready to take on the challenge especially with my fancy new camera lens in hand. But, my mind had too much time to overthink it and couldn’t make it happen.
If we could do it all in one fell swoop, life wouldn’t be that exciting. Leave a little something for the next time.
The shaman put the blindfold over my eyes. Lying on my back, I was instructed to let out a slow deep breath, and then another. Silence settled in, filling every pocket of space around me and I noticed the rhythm of my heartbeat. As the shaman began to shake the rattle nearly at the same pace as the internal metronome, I felt a pinched muscle in my neck from the angle of the pillow behind my head, but thought it would be disrupting to move.
I don’t quite recall exactly how I found myself making an appointment with the shaman and showing up at her secluded home in a remote woodland canyon, but I had come to the end of a long journey and I was desperate for answers that I didn’t have the courage to speak for myself.
I was ready for death. The death of a path that I had completed and which no longer served my soul’s journey in this life. I also wanted answers—I wanted to know that there was something worth the pain and anguish that was waiting for me on the other side. I wanted to be assured that there in fact was life after this impending death.
The rattle was getting louder and accompanied by a second, followed by incoherent words and phrases that were quietly, then loudly chanted. Rather than dropping into a dream-like state as I was lightly instructed to allow, I became hyper focused on the pinch in my neck that was worsening by the second. The stabbing pain was all I could feel or think about—I wished for the session to end but it was to last for at least one hour, or maybe more.
I wanted so badly to move. Even just to shift slightly. But I was immobilized by the fear of interrupting the healer in the middle of her trance state. I wished for death rather than to speak up. I instructed myself to focus on the rhythm of the rattle and drift off, but to no avail. After an excruciating hour the shaman was finished and the rattles came to a stop, the room fell silent once again. Finally, I shifted and stretched my neck, finding immediate relief, but the horror of having wasted hundreds of dollars for an uncomfortable hour-long neck ache. As the shaman came to, I could see a bit of surprise in her face at my swift alertness and she asked about the visions I saw. I had spent the entire time focusing on and fretting about my pain that I missed the experience completely. I said I couldn’t remember. She recounted the visions that came to her during the session—something abstract about a tiger, a butterfly, and a flowing river.
My frustrations escalated as I quietly gathered my belongings and thanked her before leaving for the long drive home to the life I was trying to escape from. It was many years later that I realized that the lesson I received was profound even though I didn’t have the sort of mystical experience I was expecting. Countless times in my life I have not spoken up when put into an uncomfortable situation, more worried about the other person’s feelings than my own well-being. It cost me my entire past life, rather than a few moments of discomfort for someone else. I missed out on the experience at hand while being preoccupied and trapped in the uncomfortable situation because I couldn’t speak up. This lesson brought an awareness of my patterns of a lifetime of self-betrayal.
Is it more important to be liked so as not to disrupt the other person, or to speak your truth even if it pushes others away? Being alone isn’t all that frightening—I’ve known loneliness my whole life and haven’t died of it just yet. I’d rather form deep relationships around honesty and truth instead of superficial niceties just because that’s what “we’re supposed to do.” I have found that I’m certainly not everyone’s cup of tea and that is okay, not everyone is meant to. I do things a bit differently and I continue to walk in two very different worlds. Being a good human is more than being only good to everyone else—I have to be good and honest with myself too. However, there is always still more work to be done.
The sun lingered, still bright and glaring in the late afternoon yet dipping down past the ridge line of the western bluffs. To the east, the shadows of the cholla and dried shrubs began stretching across the rugged canyon. Dusk was still a few hours out. Methodically, I set up camp for the night, in mid wood chopping, I paused. The doves softly cooed in the distance. The muted whisper of the wind through the blades of the nearby yucca. A smile a thousand miles wide spread across my face—there it was, the absence of human sound. No background whir of freeway traffic, no lawnmowers or leaf blowers, or barking dogs. The city was long gone. Only the occasional distant yips and song of coyote punctuated the aural landscape. That was what I came here for.
As the last orange rays of light evaporated from the canyon floor, leaving behind a blanket of violet and and indigo hues, I saw their shadowed figures standing motionless in the distance. Huddled together, they conversed about the stranger who had arrived. Whispering to each other, they were curious, but kept their distance and watched me as I started a small campfire. As I warmed my hands I returned their gaze. Soon the cold evening winds picked up—ushering me to seek warmth inside the shelter of my camper instead. I doused the remaining embers and closed up camp, but not without bidding goodnight to the figures who contentedly kept watch through the dark hours under a moonless star-studded sky.
I was awoken by the far off yips of the coyotes deeper in the canyon and the faintest glimmer of a fast approaching morning peeking in through the east facing window. Who would pass up a desert sunrise if they have the chance? What starts as a slow burning ember along the horizon, explodes into a roaring wildfire of colors stretching madly across the sky.
Edging open the door, bracing myself for that blast of crisp desert morning wind, I saw what I expected but no less filled with awe as if it were the first I had ever witnessed. I took it all in. As the light seeped into the desert, first among the neighboring ragged cliffs and then into the crevices between the cacti and dusty rocks, there they were. Huddled again, the shadowed figures casting sideways glances likely wondering if I had made it through the night. I poured myself a cup of tea, and through the rising steam I greeted them and thanked them for allowing a stranger to share their company for the night.
My life, for the most part, seemed to be pretty typical and average. Degree. Job. Married. House. Fancy car. Up until one life-changing day that I held my two month old first born child, who cried nonstop in my arms for an endless twenty-four hours after an adverse reaction to a routine vaccine. Reality hit like a brick wall in those turbulent, panic-ridden hours. I was inextricably linked to this human in a way that I never had been connected to another. Sure, a marriage vow was one thing, but this. This was a connection, a love so much deeper, dare I say karmic. Her life, her very existence depended completely on me. Who was I to take on such a responsibility? I barely knew how to take care of myself. During my pregnancy my diet was the worst in my life, I had gained over 75 pounds, and was on the verge of becoming diabetic. In those dark, endless hours of comforting her alone that fateful day, and feeling the most helpless I ever had in my life, I ruminated on the meaning of my life and questioning my early motherhood at 25.
One month prior, my newborn also suffered from severe eczema that riddled her skin with angry and irritated boils. She was not a happy baby. I knew something was not right, even though the doctor passed it off as normal and from my nascent research I suspected it was due to a dairy allergy. But she wasn’t drinking cows milk at one month old. It was me and my addiction to cheese and ice cream. Her incessant crying made it quite clear to me then the relationship of what we put in our bodies—be it foods, medicines or other non-natural chemicals—has a drastic effect on us. Not only that, I needed to be strong and healthy to raise her in the best way that I could. But, it was only the very first step on a long and winding journey ahead.
I suffered immediately from an abrupt and serious descent into post-partum depression those first few months, several times seriously plotting to run away with my daughter and to never be seen again—or worse. My husband at the time insisted that I somehow “fix myself” and nudged me in the direction of pharmaceuticals. Without knowing any better or having any support in alternatives, I was promptly prescribed high doses of drugs that numbed every last bit of feeling and emotion out of my existence. As a naturally highly sensitive and emotional person that needs to sense the world through deeper meaning, creativity and feeling, I was nothing but an empty and robotic shell. The days went on and on—I mechanically moved though the actions of what I thought I was supposed to do, never again crying, but also never smiling or laughing. Days, months, years went trodding by, every day just like the last. I lost any passion or interest I had for life—the only things that vaguely interested me was food and my nascent garden.
After the success of relieving my daughter’s severe eczema by removing all dairy from my diet, I switched to a completely plant-based diet and bought my very first cookbook. I explored every recipe in that book and to this day it remains one of the most stained and tattered tomes from those relentless early explorations in the kitchen. Each meal was an adventure to look forward to, an empty creative canvas. And, I was getting healthier and what seemed like endless, uncontainable energy. By removing dairy, my chronic pain and environmental allergies nearly completely disappeared. I had spent most of my childhood and young adult years embarrassingly suffering from chronic sinusitis, likely contributing to my introversion and shyness. Had I only known.
While nearly all of my ailments disappeared with this initial change of diet, it didn’t quell the depression. I was terrified to go off the drugs without knowing what the other side would be like. Yet, there was this pressing, relentless voice in the back of my mind pleading with me to realize I was finally strong enough to release them.
I continued to study food and nutrition, burrowing deeper into the rabbit hole of how the foods we eat interact with our body, mind and even our spirit. I leaned into raw food diets and everything they promised: weight loss, increased vitality, improved mental clarity, and boundless energy. Carefully tracking everything I ate, it came nearly to an obsession. I began to make everything our family ate from scratch—breads, crackers, chips, sauces, granola, condiments, desserts—and every meal was carefully crafted and thought out with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market or the garden. Often times I made several different meals, from something only moderately healthy my then-husband would tolerate, something simple for the kids, and then I would thoroughly enjoy my latest culinary experiment. Exploring food was the only thing that kept me going in a loveless marriage and the lonely, exhausting, and monotonous days of toddlerhood. Every waking day felt excruciatingly the same as the last, for years on end. The only memories I have of those years are in memorized recipes and hard-earned meals.
At long last, I came to a point where I felt that I could finally free myself from anti-depressants in 2012. I felt that no matter what life brought to me, I could nourish myself and those I loved through food. Despite recommendations, I abruptly quit taking the medication and as my body detoxed the pharmaceutical, I began to see the color, hope and passion not only to return to life again, but in a new way that I had never dreamed of.
As I examined intimately each bite I took throughout the day, I began to look at foods and ingredients in a new way and how they made me feel. I wanted to know more. Where did they come from? How were they grown or processed? How many hands have they touched? What resources went into its production and its transportation? What air did it breathe when it was growing? Most of us have no idea how our processed foods are stripped of nutrients and real flavor, then artificially manipulated to seduce our taste buds and neural pathways into an endless cycle of cravings and addictions. For what? More, and more fake food until we no longer remember what real was or even that a carrot grows in dirt. I wanted to know what real tomatoes tasted like, what an in-season heirloom watermelon smelled like when it burst open from its unbridled ripeness. So I grew them. Whatever seeds I could manage to get my hands on, I planted in my front yard. One year, I had 75 individual plants of 20 organic heirloom tomato varieties were growing in my garden. With a great array of other heirloom vegetables and unusual herbs, I transformed our insipid suburban lawn into a food forest.
I was after real foods and real flavor.
Through my questing and research for real food, I experienced first hand the results of our entangled connection to the foods that we eat. With a newfound drive for a better way of living, I kept digging deeper. This unprocessed organic whole food diet was great and all that, but that voice started whispering to me again. These foods are good for me, but are they good for the planet? Where are they coming from and what are our options? I turned to my garden. And I turned to higher education, pursuing a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and finished with a degree in herbal medicine where I focused on the nutritional and medicinal aspects of herbs and, specifically, mushrooms. I still couldn’t quite find the answers I was looking for.
At the beginning of my schooling, which was enormously difficult with two children under the age of 6 and the dismantling of a nine year marriage, I encountered a single plant that changed my perspective one more time—Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. It seemed foreign, strange and incredibly uninviting—something I could not connect with in any of my memories of being in nature which was rooted in the Arizona desert and forests. I learned all about this plant’s nutrition and medicinal benefits and was astounded that a single plant could be capable of so much. It was more than something to eat or make into a tea. I began my search for this plant as I learned that it was found only “in the wild.” It did not need to be coddled by a farmer, fed artificial nutrients and watered regularly. It was self-sufficient. It didn’t rely on any humans that thought they knew better. It was real. This one plant sparked a whole new raging wildfire of passion for real food.
This concept of “wild food” had not been completely unfamiliar to me, as in childhood I had devoured the book My Side of the Mountain multiple times and had longed to run away to live in a tree and eat right off the land as Sam Gribley did—to make acorn pancakes and dandelion salads. Well, let’s be honest, it was mostly about the pet falcon. I’m still waiting on that one. But alas, I grew up in the Sonoran desert at the time and making a home in a saguaro and lack of water did not seem as enchanting. I digress.
On my quest, I escaped to my local trails during the day, dragging along my two restless children, touching most any green leafy plant, looking for stinging nettle’s identifying characteristic and lasting sting. (Admittedly not the best way to go about it, regarding the dense populations of poison oak in our area) The day I found it, a most memorable moment, was incredibly empowering. I could find and identify a single nutritious and medicinal food in the wild on my own. I’ve since seen a similar wave of excitement wash over folks who learn about and identify wild foods for the first time—or is it more a remembering? There’s something innate and primal about our connection to these same plants that have fed us for millennia and it is only recently that we have forgotten that connection through our domestication and disconnection of our food.
Since then, my journey spiraled rapidly into an adventure of all that wild food has to offer. From new and unique flavors of native and non-native plants, hunting for wild mushrooms across the United States and exploring exotic fruits in Mexico, deeply studying herbal medicine and nutrition with many different and inspiring teachers, investigating new culinary possibilities, connecting with some of the world’s greatest chefs, and not to mention how the simple act of collecting acorns on my daily walk becomes an integral part of the forager’s life.
I found a little bit of myself in the foods that I collected and tasted. Wild food escapes our attempt at their domestication. It doesn’t need us, nor follows any of our rules or bow to our attempts to contain it. We, however, need wild foods. We need them and their land to thrive. We need them to remind us of our own not so distant wildness. And that this wildness is too quickly slipping away. I’m not suggesting we all become foragers, but somehow cultivate a renewed connection to this invisible land that is so quickly poisoned and polluted, plowed over and pushed aside by shopping centers and sprawling suburban neighborhoods. It is not another hip product to be bought and sold. And that is why it escapes the capitalistic nature of our contemporary mindset. If we try to put a price tag on wild food, we cannot afford it. We have to change our thinking about food. It is the rudimentary foundation of life itself. No matter who we are or where we came from, it is our history. And our future. It is real food.
I accomplished my biggest life goal today. So here is my long, exhaustive story of writing a book, in case you are interested in how this journey has come to an end: From the time when I first learned to read and write, excelling in all the advanced reading and English classes in school, I have loved books and everything about them. I wrote poems in second grade that won contests and were published in a book. I wrote and drew children’s stories by the time I was 10, hand bound and printed from a typewriter, dreaming of having them published someday. I devoured the nature books my grandma and uncle had on the bookshelves, even dictionaries and encyclopedias, fascinated by the complexity of words and their ability to transform a reader with knowledge through words on a page. To go on journeys and adventures in the imagination just by peeling back the pages and diving in.
I remember the moment, not long after moving to California in my early 20’s, driving home from work, that I decided on a few goals that I wanted to accomplish in this lifetime. The first was to design for a magazine. I did that five years later, making my way to art director just before my first daughter was born. The other goal was to write a book. The problem was, I didn’t know what to write about. I didn’t have a story to tell, or knowledge to share. My first honest attempt was nearly exactly twelve years ago, as I was home with a brand new newborn I found a little time on my hands and decided to attempt the NaNoWriMo, where one challenges oneself to write a 40k word novel in the 30 days of November. I wonder if I still have that unfinished novel, somewhere, but it was never finished and the idea of writing a book was shelved until a few years ago.
Two years ago my good friend Pascal Baudar asked me why I wasn’t writing a book. I didn’t believe I had the authority to write about anything even though I had completed my MS program a few years prior and had been writing scientific research papers for years. I went with the idea of a mushroom cookbook and put together a nice proposal and submitted it to a publisher. It was nearly accepted, but was turned down at the very last minute. I know now they had just signed another similar book with another forager. The editor felt so strongly about my book that he passed my information along with a recommendation to a literary agent who fell in love with my concept and photography which led to a meeting in San Francisco early last summer. However, after a few more ‘no’s’ and her impending leave of absence, she also passed my information on to another agent that she thought would be a better fit. At this point, I nearly gave up but persisted anyways and sent her my proposal. She came back to me with good news, but the publisher didn’t want a cookbook. They wanted a mushroom guidebook for beginners and requested a new proposal. Within days, I turned around a new proposal and they were thrilled, but wanted a book profiling 25 top mushrooms of North America with 40k words and 50 photos in six months.
The problem was, mushroom season in Southern California was certainly over and was waning on the west coast. Not to mention the onset of a pandemic. Oh, and many mushrooms I had never found yet, particularly Hen of the Woods which is only found on the east coast. Six months to trust nature and my mushroom hunting abilities to show up across the country to find something I never found before. Luckily I have a few fantastic friends who have helped along the way to make this possible.
Five and a half months later, I have submitted all of my work, despite the editor changing the deadline several times. I leave for the east coast next month, one more time, to find the one I am still missing. The hen of the woods. For now, the biggest part of this project is done. I wrote a book called ‘Mushroom Wanderland’ and it will be published by Countryman Press, released next year.
‘What next?’ … everyone asks. It is strange to be working towards something for so long, for a lifetime, for it to go to the last stage of ‘I want to write a book,’ ‘I am writing a book,’ to now ‘I wrote a book.’ And that is it. There is an emptiness, a silence, very much like that of the birth of my daughter exactly twelve years ago, where a thing that was once a part of me, is now separate and vulnerable to face the harshness of the world. I will probably write another book, not sure what about yet, but I know I will continue to wander and wonder about the world through this very human experience.
The breathtaking beauty of mushrooms from a master forager: how to identify and use them in cooking, home remedies, and spirituality.
Foraging for mushrooms is a meditative and rewarding escape. Even if readers aren’t ready to head out into the woods, this enchanting visual guide is a welcome introduction to 25 easily identifiable species, organized by location and use. Author Jess Starwood has led hundreds of foraging trips, sharing her knowledge of nature with students. This, her first book, is a celebration of fungi—perfect for both beginner and longtime mushroom admirers.
No matter their use, all mushrooms have specific characteristics that are easy to recognize with the right teacher. Under Starwood’s guidance, readers will learn to identify caps, stipes, gills, and pores. They’ll encounter species such as Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Candy Cap, Chanterelle, and more; learn the best harvesting seasons; and enjoy delicious recipes using culinary favorites. But, above all, this guide will have readers growing their connection to nature and dreaming of the wonderful world of fungi.
The quest for Saguaro Fruit… is it the journey that makes it that much sweeter?
Deep into the heat of the Sonoran desert, the hottest days of the year, the giant saguaro cactus offers its deeply hued fruits to the winged folk—the white-winged doves, the woodpeckers and the bats—up to sixty feet above the ground. These green skinned fruits burst open like flowers, revealing their crimson flesh and hundreds of black seeds. This is the third year I have collected the fruits and it is not a casual task. Sometimes I get lucky and there’s a generous saguaro who’s large arm has become too heavy and bends downward, offering its nearly spineless fruit within reach.
At the beginning of my trip, I was able to grab a few fruits on a cactus that was conveniently next to a fence that I climbed on and used an extendable pool net to haphazardly collect them. They were completely unripe and unpalatable (but I still pickled them and they turned out great!).
The following night, on my evening walk, I noticed another cactus who’s fruits were bursting open—their tell-tale sign of ripeness. I had no pool net, ladder nor long stick to reach them so I grabbed a few nearby stones to toss at them hoping to dislodge a few. Apparently the cactus thought I was playing catch and bounced them right back at me. Noted: catching skills need improvement.
I went on my way, feeling a bit embarrassed, but remembering just down the path there was another cactus with the bent-down arm that I collected from last year. The darkness that was creeping in was fitting for the scene that I was not expecting. Within the year since I last visited, the cactus had died. This led me to wonder, was I the last human to eat its fruits? It had been a stately cactus with many arms, indicative of its age… possibly up to 200 years old. Had there been any other hungry wanderers that had enjoyed its fruit in that time? Surely it hadn’t been waiting for me… but that romantic idea had danced through my mind. Wistfully, I turned my gaze to the ground and noticed the remains of one of its arms. All of the flesh had decomposed leaving long thick ‘ribs’ of the cactus behind. It had left me a gift even after its death.
In the past, it was these sticks that were used by native people to collect the fruits. Some were long enough as they were, other times they were tied end to end to reach the tops of the highest cacti. I gratefully chose one stick and returned to the first cactus with the ripe fruit. I was reminded of the story by Shel Silverstein… “The Giving Tree” where the tree gives everything of itself, its fruit, shade, wood, and then it’s stump even after its death, to the boy.
I only took a few fruits. No more than what I needed to share with my family for this only once a year treat. No need for any special preparations with their delicate flavor. This fruit is mildly sweet, reminiscent of watermelon without the water and much less slimy than prickly pear fruit. It is full of tiny crunchy black seeds that can be eaten altogether with the fruit. One of my most favorites.
Is the taste that incredible and worth the effort? Or is it the journey to it that makes it that much sweeter?
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Traveling affects the spirit in unimaginable ways. But it takes that first step into the unknown to expand the mind and to expand the perception of our world in a way that changes us forever.
This year, I co-lead a week-long foraging and botany adventure into the mountains of southern Baja. With the focus of finding and tasting local wild plants and mushrooms, we explored the different micro-climates of the semi-tropical Cacti and Legume Forests of the cape region and Sierra de Laguna mountains. Plants ranged from familiar variations of species I have found in Southern California (US) and the Sonoran Deserts of Arizona to completely unusual and rare species.
On the group’s first day together, we arrived at Sol de Mayo, our base camp for the trip where they had beautiful rustic cabins and a very basic kitchen. Because of the rural location, we didn’t have some of our ususal urban comforts—electricity, paved roads, hot water, and for some of the trip, cell service. We got to enjoy our dinners by candelight every evening. It was a great introduction to the countryside and helped everyone disconnect and unplug (literally). Our first dinner was huilatcoche (corn fungus) and squash blossom tacos from the local market.
From our cabins, we could hear the waterfall. For our first adventure, we hiked into the wilderness, exploring and identifying the plants we encountered and learned their edible and medicinal uses. After our trek up the river trail, we headed back down for a swim at the waterfall and its refreshing crystal clear water. Our dinner was battered squash blossoms and tacos with wild water leaf, puffball mushroom and purslane.
After collecting damiana and bouillon bush herbs, we visited a nearby Eco-Community located on a permaculture mango farm. We learned about permaculture, eco-friendly building and sustainable community with the founder Ryshek. He offered us a generous tasting of the abundance of fruits grown on the land. We found a tarantula and several other wild creatures along the way.
Explored San Dionisio Canyon with guides who took us to some amazing waterfalls and swimming holes with natural slides. Afterwards we went on a hunt for the Baja Black Sapote, also known as the Chocolate Pudding Fruit. After climbing the one tree we found with only a few ripe fruits, we got to enjoy its unique taste. We collected acorns as well and shelled them under candelight to prep for other meals.
A tropical storm started to settle in, but we headed to the Santa Rita hot springs to warm up and relax. For some of us, it was our first time soaking in a hot spring! Then, we rock-hopped through the canyon, at some points crossing the river waist deep with our packs precariously hovering over the water. We made it to a natural pool that seemed as if it was artistically carved in the rock with a shallow and deep ends, diving, slides and even rock benches to sit in the water. Afterwards, we headed back to base camp to relax. Dennis made a mushroom and seaweed soup using the bouillon bush herb (it smells like Top Ramen!) and the Agaricus mushrooms we found. I made savory acorn cakes, socca style, with lots of toppings.
The tropical storm settled in and rained all day, causing flooding and washed out roads. Not a problem, we had our robust “El Burro” van to take us out to the Sierra Cacachillias to search for rare desert honey persimmons. We didn’t find many ripe ones, but just enough to bring back to make a syrup for the next day’s acorn pancakes. It was a wild ride through the wet sandy roads that were more like rivers on our trek back to the mountains, dodging the heirloom cattle that liked to sleep in the roads at night.
November 28 With the intense rains, many of the roads were washed out and witnessed several cars stuck in the mud. But, again, “El Burro” got us out to the coast to Cabo Pulmo. Our original destination at the coral reef for snorkeling was closed unfortunately, but we still found a great spot to swim in the warm water of the Sea of Cortez and collect coral on the beach. Afterwards, we headed to the Buena Fortuna gardens for a Mexican-style “thanksgiving” dinner. Most of the foods were gathered from the 11 acre gardens and ended with an epic “pumpkin pie”. We then took a tour through the garden led by Dennis exploring unusual and exotic plants. After the tour, a few of our group partook in hapé.
November 29 Departure back to the united states.
This trip has opened my eyes to a larger and more complex abundant world. Traveling enlivens the soul and challenges our routines and comfort zones. I hope to share many more exciting adventures with you all in the future.
Foraging Baja 2020
If you would like more information when it is available, please send me an email with “Foraging Baja 2020” in the subject line. email@example.com