A Forager I’m Not

Don’t count me as much of a forager. A Nicole Zempel, the budding PBS television forager star, I’m not. Nevertheless, as I was leaving Listening Stones Farm for a luncheon date I happened to glance into my timbered land and spied what appeared to be chicken of the woods mushrooms. For those unaware, or too fearful, these beautiful orangish fungi make delightful cuisine. Sautéed in garlicky butter, and even included in a saucy dish, these mushrooms have a hint to the taste of the thigh meat of a roasted chicken.

All of which makes those of us who share such pleasures usually pretty excited upon finding one. Since I had a scheduled lunch, I made note of it and promised myself when I returned home I would go gather the feast. Perhaps my lips were even moist just in imagining a meal. 

As soon as I returned, Joe Pye and I headed into the woods looking for the chickens. They were nowhere in sight. When I initially spotted them there were on the eastern side of a tree, so I went from tree to tree in search of the pair of chickens. While it was nice being in the woody portion of my land, it was frustrating not finding the mushrooms. Could the “oranginess” actually been squirrels? There are plenty of those tree- and sunflower-loving rodents in the woods to suggest such a possible sighting. Literally, the mushroom bearing tree could not be found … until I went for my morning walk the following morning.

With sunlight from the east the chicken of the woods were noticed in the woods.

Yes! The sun was highlighting the trees with the eastern sunlight and once again the gilded chickens glistened against the grayness of bark. When I returned from my two mile hike my trusty hound and I headed back into the woods … through cockleburs and other clingy plants to the tree right in the area where I had been looking the day before. It was a bit deeper and just off the trail I try to keep open through the grove for walks and cross country skiing once the snow flies.

While I don’t know “squirrel talk” for chicken of the woods, it appears they may have been just as excited to find the delicious orbs as we humans, for the upper portion of both fungi clumps were severely gnawed. And, perhaps as disheartening, the chickens had been there long enough that they were past their prime for being edible, let alone cook-able. There was simply no “give” on a pinch.

This wasn’t the first chickens of the wood I’ve found here, and I know there must be other mushrooms hidden in the grove. A few years ago an ash tree next to the garden suddenly spouted a clump of the chickens which were immediately harvested. The following year the same ash once again bore a chicken clump although it was so high that  I needed a ladder to gather it. And, before my neighbors started penning their horses here I found a bountiful patch of shaggy manes in the land previously converted to a hopeful orchard that never took hold. Nor did the shaggy manes, for that matter. Unfortunately this seemed to be a one time bonanza.

Perhaps the squirrels got to them first …

I love chopping shaggy manes to have with steaks or chops, although chickens of the woods simmered in garlic and butter are a special delight. Sometimes I’ll add some chicken broth whisked into a gravy then ladled over wild or long grained rice. Salmon and chicken thighs are both perfect complements to the mushrooms. Once again, it seems, I’ve missed out.

Oh to have the eye and persistence as my foraging friend, Nicole. She’s a joy to forage with as she ambles through the woods or prairie, especially when you hear her shouts of a delightful “Oh!” and realize she’s spied another fabulous forb or fungi. She would have surely spied my chickens way ahead of the squirrels!

As much as I’ve tried over the years to entice her up to forage in my woods, her own woods on the edge of Granite Falls seems too much of a magnet. Several years ago she had a come-to-life moment and entered her nearby woods along with other wildness haunts along the gneiss outcrops along the Minnesota River, which has since resulted in several art exhibits of her mushroom photography and spore prints, a Facebook page and website she calls Wild Roots MN, and was a “fill in” forager featured in a PBS production of Prairie Sportsman last spring. This has since led to featuring her in five minute “Fast Forage” segments for the upcoming season.

Sauteed in butter and garlic …

“A foragers basket is always full,” she said. “Over the past several months of filming we’ve covered cottonwood buds, giant chickweed, ground cherries, wild prairie onion and garlic, milkweed, wild grapes, chanterelle and chicken of the woods mushrooms, sumac and acorns.” Her foraging segments will be spliced into the 13 PBS Prairie Sportsman half hour shows beginning in January. With her charm and eye for natural edibles you can almost image Thoreau blushing, Euell Gibbons smiling and her being on Michael Pollan’s radar. The woman has no ceiling!

Personally I’ve had a long interest in mushrooming that dates back to my life in Colorado and my first marriage. As the summer ebbed into autumn Marilyn Greb Binkley and I would often go mushroom foraging in the foothills and lower mountain woodlands in search of mushrooms, and for awhile we belonged to the Colorado Mycology Society. When I was freelancing I would often jog through Denver’s City Park where I would find meadow mushrooms and shaggy manes. In the alley behind our house was a stump that seemed to constantly produce oyster mushrooms in season. My only complaint of those long ago forays was that my eyes were seemingly always glued to the ground searching for fungi rather than on the nearby mountainous landscapes.

I haven’t been so lucky since moving to Minnesota where the attitude seems that if it isn’t a morel it isn’t worth finding or eating. There is such an array of tsste treats! Chantrellas. Puffballs. Oysters. Shaggy manes. A neighbor in the small town where I ran a country weekly newspaper had a spot along his sidewalk that grew some very bountiful and beautiful shaggy manes. He was more than happy for me to come to harvest them. His “toadstools” were my “side dish” for steaks and chops for several years. “I’ve tried poisoning the damned things,” he told me early on. “Nothing seems to kill ‘em.”

… then served as a side to baked salmon! Wow!

Thanks goodness. I’m sure both Nicole and Marilyn would be horrified. When I suggested letting me harvest them rather than spraying them, he gladly backed off. 

So here I am once again compelled to searching my five acres of timber and eight acres of prairie for edible mushrooms, although I now have competition from the squirrels. Apparently my sunflower seeds in the bird feeders aren’t enough. Perhaps I need to up my game. Perhaps that’s long overdue for my foraging is seemingly more luck than awareness.

Seasons Come, Seasons Go

Seasons come, seasons go. And our autumn, a time of migrations and leaf transformations of color, seems on the brink of closure as October winds blast across the prairie, littering the rivers and plains with dead and dried leaves of varying colors. Truly it was merely a matter of time, and after my hitting the colorful peak last week at both Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Maplewood State Park, my desire to capture the last of an autumny essence at Buffalo River State Park meant time was of essence. With that in mind I set my alarm for a 5 a.m. wakeup call.

My thought was to drive up to Buffalo River State Park just east of Moorhead before dawn with hopes the winds hadn’t already denuded the trees alongside this small, picturesque river. Then, either I didn’t hear or ignored the alarm all together, my day was off kilter before it had barely begun.

As I left Listening Stones farm early that morning my initial rationalization was that although I would miss the sunrise at Buffalo River some two hours up the road, there might still be ample post-sunrise color for my photography. At the end of my road, though, my plans abruptly changed. Left to Buffalo River, or right to the Minnesota River. I’d be turning right.

Time was running short either way. For prime color and light, that is. Yet, there was still a whole day to come. Without speeding I made it to a bridge over the Minnesota River with moments to spare as the sun was just barely below the horizon. Pulling the car onto the shoulder, I grabbed my camera and rushed for the bridge ahead of two cars heading toward Ortonville and actual paying jobs. One of the pure blessings of retirement.

So my day began on the Minnesota River and would eventually end several hours later on the Buffalo River up in Clay County. If timed correctly, there would be ample time for some hopeful late afternoon light and color near  sunset. A rapid assessment showed many of the trees had already been hit with winds from across the floor of the sheer flat Red River Valley, though a hint of leaf color peaked through along the waters edge. Later in the afternoon an overcast sky doused any intent of adding ambient afternoon colors to those beautiful waters. 

My morning brought some nice images to the camera. Perhaps nothing like my Klimt-like image of the leaves I made late last week, but decent enough. Same for my afternoon on the Buffalo River, although once again I longed for a pathway to the bottom of the bluff just below the park headquarters. That was my mental image when I left home, for when I was there last winter the snow was too deep and this time the hillside growth seemed too much of a hassle for a descent dip into the valley floor with no idea of the eventual view. From the hilltop there appeared to be a nice long stretch of river pointing toward a setting sun.

Back on the Minnesota my sunrise image was calm and colorful with ambient light from the rising sun reaching over the hillside village of Odessa. Across the bridge a reflection of the moon, though smaller than a button, awaited against a “rainbow” dawn-ish sky. 

Moments later, on a whim, I found the gate into the Big Stone NWR open so I took the loop. There would be hours to kill before I would leave for the Buffalo River. Oddly enough I can usually capture a few interesting images on each trip through the Refuge, and I would again.

Once again the few birds I saw were cooperative, including a great blue heron … before an erosion of patience hit for a launch skyward to head across the pool shallowed by a summer of drought. A few hundred feet down the loop road four geese shared a rock that in normal times and water levels would have been under the pool’s surface. And so it went. On this morning there were numerous geese and cormorants, though little else in terms of avian species.

After circling the loop I found leaves floating in the calmed river, and fortunately it was early enough that I could leave the car in the narrow, one-way canopied road without fear of traffic. I could take my time in search of something interesting. Several attempts had left me wanting, although I found one of the images rather interesting when I downloaded the card. 

Up on the Buffalo River there was barely enough color to be interesting. Among my joys photographically is playing with water imagery, and I was able to make a couple of nice images. One in particular I thought was really nice was of two trees reflected on stilled waters with a few leaves floating through. Further upriver was a newly fallen leaf perfectly caressing the surface with its shadow reflected by the mirror-like water.

Once again I tried to photograph the magic of gravity, of how leaves weighing less than a butterfly are drawn toward the earth. “That’s why they call it ‘fall,’” said a friend. Years ago I sat both on a balcony and later on a bench of a cobblestone patio at Suzanne Kranz’s boutique hotel in Breda, Holland, as leaves got their call from gravity as they broke loose from a stately old oak tree in the hotel courtyard. Though it was like a rain with so many drifting down at once, I had no more luck along the Buffalo River than I’d had in Breda. 

Then the winds came. You could hear it above and see the sway in the treetops even if it was calm on the trail. That would change out in the open away from the timbered land, some of which was also protected by a tall river bank. A day that had been reasonably warm for mid-October was suddenly chilly with a drop in temperature of some 13 degrees by the time I had returned to my car off the trail. The experiences between the two rivers couldn’t have been more different.

Out on the plain on the drive home the winds were brutal. My car would be hounded on the two hour drive home as singular windblown corn leaves sliced across the beams of the headlights like thrown knives. Where was the early morning calm and peacefulness on the Minnesota near Odessa? The night offered a wholly different aspect to the day than the calm I had experienced earlier that morning on the bridge over the Minnesota River, and even earlier in the state park. It seemed as if in an instant our autumn was coming to a windblown conclusion, offering a closure for both leafy color and warmth on the threshold of winter. Seasons come, seasons go … on a day between two prairie rivers.

The Unencumbering

On my saunter hardly a leaf was stirring, not even a grouse. On a quiet afternoon the wind was silent. So silent this wooded path along Big Stone Lake was so stilled the snapping of a stepped on twig seemed to pop like a cheap firecracker. Perhaps even echoing through the woods and across the waters.

Although I had stopped twice for meditative reasons, once just into the woods and then later on a storm ravaged oak on a distant hill near a meadow of autumn blessed sumac, for I enjoy and sometimes need dipping into a forest “bath.” And there I was, pleasantly alone, on the lakeside trail of Bonanza.

I kept my eyes coursing through the timber in hopes of seeing deer. Those “snapping” twigs were unrelenting, so chances were slim if not impossible. Not just any deer, for I wanted a nice, regal buck with stout antlers, ambling slowly along within lens view surrounded by colorful leaves. Later I would scare up a doe and her twin, nearly fully grown fawns, and luckily a couple of shots were made as they bounded away. 

My hope was for photographing a regal buck with stout antlers, although a yearling would do.

Initially I had concentrated on hearing, and high in the treetops birds were busy with hasty flights high in the canopy and song. Later when I tried to enlarge the images it seemed as if I had come upon a small migration of blackburnian warblers. One of the birds I could identify later was a redpoll. It was the only one without the markings that so closely resembled the blackburnians. 

In previous saunters on this trail, piliated woodpeckers would flutter in and out of camera range, and on this afternoon the same held true. As patient as I could be, my only images were of their backs that blended so perfectly with the tree bark. There seems to be a trio of trees with deeply hollowed holes, all almost perfectly symmetrical from the pattern of pecking. I’ve considered bringing a blind into the woods to place between the trio of trees. It seems I only think of the blind after entering the woods.

Before the destructive derecho earlier this summer the trail was pristine and cathedral-like with towering oaks providing a nearly perfect canopy. Limbs, thick and heavy, arched gracefully from stately trunks over the trail. Often I found myself searching for angles that might illustrate such a seemingly perfect portrayal of woodland form, strength and beauty. Now the trail is littered with broken trees with shattered limbs laying askew in the aftermath of that shuddersome storm. Trees seemingly so strong and indestructible were simply no match for the straight-line winds barreling across the lake. 

A “sumac” meadow brought color on a cloudy day.

Park workers have cleared the trail itself of the trunks and limbs, although the damaged oaks remain throughout, snapped and broken as if they were Tinker Toys. I wondered if the broken trees would be somehow removed and perhaps burned, or if the decision was made to allow them to slowly rot and degenerate into the soil of the forest floor. What is time to a forest? 

Bonanza is much like the rest of the eastern shore of Big Stone Lake with a steep bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren. Cutting through these tall shoulders of the lake are numerous ravines, and one such ravine cuts across the trail about two thirds of the way through. Spring-fed waters trickle through the forest and over stones before entering the lake, offering hikers a heavenly sound, one that eases away strife and worries if the time is taken. A boardwalk bridge offers a fine place to sit, or even to lay down, to allow the magic to work.

At the upper “lip” of the ravine, the reds from the sumac and yellow from the dogwood brought a lovely brightness to the otherwise cloudy day. I laid so the colorful horizon was in view so I could take in the color as well as the sound of the trickling waters. On rare occasions I will encounter another hiker, and I wondered what one might think of seeing an old guy laying on the boardwalk bridge, a camera at his side, with his hands clasped as a pillow behind his head. Perhaps he or she might come and sit, too, or maybe find the necessary space to find a similar prone position.

A spring fed steam cuts through the ravine en route to Big Stone Lake.

Eventually the inertia came to right myself for the rest of the hike which would take me up the hill into the sumac meadow. Here the sumac, ever invasive, spreads in a sea of autumn redness across the meadow with clusters dotting the distant hillside. 

At the “end” of the trail rest two picnic tables, and taking a brief seat always seems like fine idea. More so to collect one’s thoughts than to rest. Interestingly I had not heard the boats motoring on the lake until I sat, and there was only a few off in the distance.

Then it was time to head back, to look at the woods from a behind previous prospectives, This time there was no stopping to sit or lay on the bridge, and some of the worked over trees trunks and limbs were laid so the cut ends seemed to face me more so than I had noticed on the hike in. I sensed more destruction, more mayhem of a storm so strong. Nature taking its course in time.

What had once been a beautiful canopy lays tattered and torn along trailside.

It was a fine saunter, and a relaxing one after a taxing weekend. I debated on whether I should process my images, or to wait a day or so. My walk wasn’t necessarily meant for photography. My intent was merely to recharge the soul, to breathe unencumbered with stress and busyness. Meditation was more in need than the adding a few images to files that will one day be long forgotten. As I neared the trees at the start of the trail, the warblers were still fluttering from high above though the stillness remained. 

I was reminded of the thoughts shared by songwriter and singer Beth Wood recently on social media: “I just want a few days of doing nothing, with no plans and no to-do list and no agenda and nowhere in particular I have to be.” My saunter through Bonanza felt like that, and I’m quite blessed to have such a beautiful trail nearby for such moments.