That’s what the Ojibway called an early spring month, and it could certainly describe Rumsey in March 2016. Redbuds, iris, miners lettuce, wild milkweed, and many other plants are blooming up and down the roadside leading into the canyon.
I’ve been using redbud and miners lettuce flowers in roast beet/goat cheese salads. I serve this at breakfast. Both grow in my own yard.
Driving down a residential street in Woodland, on my way from the tax office, I caught a glimpse of red … something…amid the leaves of a large tree and parked my car to have a look. Mulberries! And the tree was a public tree, parked next to a government parking lot. This is the kind of thing that brings joy to a forager. I noted they’d be ripe in about a week. I decided to check two other mulberry trees in similar places.
A man came out of his apartment to watch me. “You like mulberries?” he asked. “Come back in a week and the tree will be covered.”
“No,” I thought to myself. “These berries will be ripe in the next day or so.” I knew I’d have to swing by with my tarp and a pole. For years I picked each berry one at a time. Yikes! I realized belatedly that the only way to harvest mulberries was with a tarp and a stick: spread the tarp under the tree and hit the boughs with a stick. They drop like raindrops.
Mulberries are yummy served fresh in a fruit melange or mixed with cherries in a pie. By themselves, they are not quite tart enough. But their chewy texture and health benefits make them delicious with other fruit. What to do with the abundance? I’ve tried freezing them but they become gunky mush. Yuck. This year I did what they do in Afghanistan: dry them. I will toss them with walnuts for snacking – or try making Nomad Bars.
Nomad bars is the name my friend Asma and I came up with on my last trip to Afghanistan. Talkhun was something I’d heard about often: mulberry cakes made of the pressed berries and ground walnuts. Described as kind of wonder food, I’d never seen it for sale. Yet everyone said it was common “winter food” when nothing fresh was available. Perhaps people made it themselves and it never got to market. That would be like breadfruit…abundant if you had it in your own backyard. My friend Najib began asking at markets. On the way home from Bamyan, we stopped at a dusty shop in a small market town. “Yes, they had it,” the shopkeeper thought. He’d have to look in the back. He came out carrying a dark purple brick wrapped in paper. I bought the entire thing. Asma and I thought we could replicate this recipe – or hire Afghans to make it – and sell it in America as a nutritious power bar. The wrapping would have pictures of camels in a caravan: Nomad Bars. My luggage was so heavy I asked Asma to carry it home for me, but it was confiscated at the airport. Alas.
I finally found it referenced in an old travelers book on Google, and a recipe from a friend’s website:http://www.afghancultureunveiled.com/
Afghan Mulberry and Walnut Snack Bars
Makes 16 small bars
½ lb. dried mulberries
½ lb. walnuts
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
2 tbsp. water
16 walnut halves
Put all of the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and puree for 1 to 2 minutes until the ingredients form a thick, smooth, sticky paste.
Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment or wax paper with the paper draping over two sides of the pan so you have something to hold onto when you remove the snack bars.
Put the mulberry/walnut mixture into the pan and firmly press it down evenly over the bottom of the pan. Distribute the walnut halves evenly over the snack bar mixture, gently pressing them into the bars, to make 4 even rows of 4 walnuts.
Refrigerate for an hour to firm up the bars. Using the edges of the wax paper, lift the mixture out of the pan and set it on a cutting surface. Use a sharp knife and cut it into 16 squares with a walnut in the center of each square. Store in a lidded container at room temperature, or the refrigerator if you prefer them cold.
I spent a day in the garden, surrounded by wild animals. Orioles have returned early to feed at my hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds stare me in the face as I clean the porch.
Last year a strange and unhappy guest posted photos of a dead walnut tree overlooking my porch; she said this was an example of unsightly things up here, along with clothes I was sun-drying on the line. Oh WELL. I have not stopped sun-drying my laundry, but try doing it when guests aren’t here. As for the dead tree: I was about to have it cut down when I noticed a woodpecker had made a new nest in it a couple of weeks ago. She speaks to me if I get too close to the tree when gardening, and I speak back, “I’ll leave your babies alone, don’t worry.” Then I spotted a hole in the base of the tree at ground line. A gopher, I thought, and stuck my hose into it to flood it out. I was surprised when a toad hopped out instead. Toads and frogs are attracted to my water features: ponds and fountains. I have decided to leave that tree alone.
This evening I drove to the old Rumsey Bridge to look for more wildlife. An otter was busy scouting the bottom of the river for food. I loved watching its back legs paddling when it stuck its head down amid the rocks. Two geese swam by. Clouds were red from the sunset over the peaks. Everything was quiet and I was happy.
I must have become fond of foraging on my first date with my husband David, 40 years ago. I had met him only weeks before, when hunting for a garage where I could park my motorcycle. This was in San Francisco; my landlady had complained of my parking the cycle in her garage, and David had a garage around the corner he was willing to rent. It wasn’t long before he stopped charging me rent and we began dating. That is a story we loved telling our children. Anyhow, for our first date he invited me to an event he thought would be different and possibly exciting: a display of wild mushrooms gathered by the San Francisco Mycological society. After two hours peering at mushrooms, we felt we knew enough to hunt our own so we drove to the Presidio to look for blewitts under Eucalyptus trees. We found some and cooked them that evening for dinner. Incredible that we weren’t poisoned by our lack of knowledge. Instead, a lifelong interest in collecting mushrooms, edible or just beautiful, began.
But I always had trouble finding morels. I did find one once, improbably, while waiting for a ride at Disneyland. It was growing under a bench. And another one, single, growing under a tree at SF Community college where I was taking land surveying classes so that I could join archaeology expeditions as a mapper. Both times, people asked me what I held in my hand and I lied to lead them astray, “Oh, it’s a poisonous mushroom. Interesting, though, isn’t it?”
So, yesterday I joined a group led by a commercial mushroom hunter. We drove high into the Sierra mountains along a snaky road to spots where fires had charred – but not completely burned – cypress stands. Although I was on time, I was the last to arrive for the carpools in a local Safeway market and discovered they had been joking about my name, wondering if I was related to the British Camilla. Then I asked for a moment so I could jump into the Safeway and grab a Starbucks Coffee. I was the oldest member of the group by several decades, except for the leader Patrick, who had long gray hair pulled into a pony tail. He warned us there would be plenty of hiking. Were we all up for it?
Once we began collecting, Patrick made a number of wisecracks at my expense: “You can’t find mushrooms carrying a coffee cup!”, “You have to LOOK to find the morels, Camilla. You might have to get on your hands and knees.”; and when I had difficulty finding any, he pulled some out of his pocket and handed them to me saying, “We knew you would be the last to find any, so I saved these for you.”
I laughed because I was indeed having trouble finding morels but on the next stop I caught up with them, finding more than anyone else. The wisecracks stopped. When we parted for the day, Patrick came over to me and remarked, “I’m really glad you came, Camilla! You were a real trooper.” I looked at him quizzically and he repeated, “You were a real trooper!” Something about me, I realized with a jolt, had given Patrick the feeling that I would be a wet blanket on the trip. What was it? My age? My coffee? My name, linked with an unpopular British woman? Was that why he had warned about the hiking? All I could think of to say was, “You don’t even know me.”
“Well, we all wondered…”he trailed off. Did I have to wear a resume on my shirt to win his respect? Should I have told him about my frequent trail runs, my stints in wild Afghanistan, the fact that I would be stopping on the way home to climb into a tree to gather wild mulberries? Maybe I should visit a plastic surgeon after all, so that my face keeps better pace with my spirit. Yikes.
I will dry the morels and saute them later as garnishes on breakfast plates for guests who appreciate wild mushrooms. The mulberries I already served this morning, tossed with strawberries and pomegranates from my yard.
I was inspired to title this blog after reading my daughter’s hilarious “Pet Peeves of Solo Travelers” post on her blog Beck Daily.
My title is really a teaser because my guests have been great. (Well, I can count three who were nightmares, but they hardly count out of so many guests). I don’t know how I can be so lucky.
Here’s what I imagined with dread: picking up kleenexes and bottles scattered on the floor, soiled bed linens, dirt tracks left on the nice carpets.
Here’s what I get: guests who often leave the rooms so neat that I wonder if they really slept there, guests who volunteer to do handyman chores (I don’t expect this!!!!!), plant trees, guests who compliment me on my breakfasts, guests who send me the sweetest letters or even gifts after they leave…guests who invite me to visit them at their homes!
Thank you, all of you, for making my hosting experience a lovely pleasure.
I am one of the luckiest people on earth. I live in an area where there are many Native Americans and have been invited to some of their events. For years, I read and taught about Native Americans. I visited reservations in Arizona and Northern California, saw ceremonies and dances, walked among Navaho sheepherders in red rock canyons – but was always an outsider passing through. But here, in north central California, there are many rancherias in places such as Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Point Arena, Stonyford, Cortina. Recently, I was an invited guest at two Acorn Harvest Dinners at Cortina.
“I was about twelve years old when we installed electricity in my Uncle’s cabin,” one gentleman told me. He pointed to a small, unadorned wood building where his Uncle had lived. One room, simple porch running across the front. “He liked it at first. He had electric lights and a refrigerator. But after a couple of years he asked us to take it out. ‘It’s too much trouble,’ he told us. It was easier for him to blow out a candle when he wanted to go to bed. The refrigerator was too much work. ‘Bring back my old ice box.’ His drinks were kept cool by setting them on a metal plate on top of the ice box,” my acquaintance told me. “That was really all he needed or wanted.”
Another person told me about the water at Cortina. “You can’t drink it. The water here has too much sulfur. We can use it for washing dishes and that’s about it.”
“What do you do for drinking water?” I asked. It was a stupid question, the answer obvious. Nearby sat an ice chest filled with bottled water. I amended my question, “I mean, before bottled water. In the past.”
He pointed toward a ravine full of brambles on the other side of the picnic tables. “There used to be good spring down there, and a path leading to it. I don’t know if it’s still there or not. I haven’t gone there since I was a little boy.”
I asked if I could go exploring, find the path. He shrugged, “Well, if you want.” I asked, because I didn’t know – and still don’t – what is considered off limits. There are no KEEP OUT signs at the entrance to Cortina Rancheria, but neither are there signs pointing to it. Just driving there makes me feel as though I’m entering a Brigadoon: long winding road, gravelly, leading back and back along the edge of uninhabited lonely oak hills to a dead end at the edge of a arid canyon. I have only met one other local white settler family who has ever been there or heard of it.
The elder who extended me an invitation, a woman whom I believe serves as leader although I don’t think she uses that title, said a prayer in the native language before long tables under a sheltering roof. The tables were spread with potluck food such as you might find at a church picnic but scattered among the dishes were other specialties: hand prepared fat tortillas, fry bread, elk, deer, and bowls of acorn soup. At the head of the table was a water-tight basket full of the thick brown liquid.
The conversation around the table was about native gatherings, big times and dances, held at other locations; news of people who hadn’t been seen recently, whether the round house at Cortina would be rebuilt. A rough circular hole in the ground near the picnic tables was all that remained of the last roundhouse. A number of guests had traveled long distances from other rancherias: Point Arena, Calpella, the Feather River region. There was little advance warning of the two Acorn Harvest dinners I attended, only a couple of days. “How did you hear about this dinner?” I asked two women from Point Arena. “I’m suprised so many people came with so little notice.”
“Oh, word spreads, ‘invite your friends’, get on the phone, email.” Then she told me about an upcoming dance at the round house in Point Arena. “The public is invited; you should come!” I did. That might be another post.
Autumn. There is a fresh breeze and cottonwood trees along the creek are yellowing, their leaves fluttering. California Buckeyes are already brown and bare. Acorns drop from the large Valley Oaks along my driveway onto the roof of my car with a loud pling.
Acorn woodpeckers roost in my grand oak trees and shout loudly as they fly among the leafy bower, all in a great happy flock. White patches on their underwings flash as they travel to and fro. The woodpeckers kept me company as I carted loads of fresh cut wood from my neighbor’s yard into mine: an arduous job. Tree cutters had cut a leaning tree from my side of the irrigation flume but left the wood on her side. I will use it for firewood next season. An arduous task. Next I will use my dolly to try moving the heavy stumps. I am reminded of the value of levers.
Then I went on a river walk. Cache Creek is so low that I can wade across patches that usually rush with deep water. I enjoyed the slippery rocks and cool water on my legs because the days are still hot. I used a deer path over an exposed island and picked up a flat red rock that I will use in my driveway where I have laid a snaky design of other river-smoothed rocks. I kept an eye out for Indian grinding rocks that might have been covered by water. I peered at the cliffs on the far side, wondering if I would see the burrow nest of a kingfisher. And rattlesnakes. My neighbors have seen quite a few this year and one neighbor let me help skin one last week. He will use it for a hat band.
Then I crossed over to the high broad riverbank on the far side. Native Americans must have camped here at one time; I just felt it. Tall yellow grass brushed my legs, blue oaks and foothill pines dotted the meadow. I was all alone on the river. A ghost pine had dropped loads of fresh cherry-brown pine cones and I stooped to pick them up, beating them against a flat boulder to shake their seeds free which I stuffed into my pockets. When I waded back across the river, I startled a group of water birds (what kind?) from their evening roosts on boulders in the middle of the flow. Today I will return to that spot to gather more seeds because my pockets weren’t large enough.
In the evening, I drove to the Guinda Grange where a group of women gather weekly to do crafts together. I sorted twigs and leaves from wild huckleberries I had gathered in the woods several weeks ago. We talked about husbands dead and alive, and how they can disappoint or support us; also about how they sometimes appear in our dreams – or others’ who tell us about them.