Get Your Nettle Eyes On
Do you have a favourite wild food? I think mine may be stinging nettle. Each spring I scan the landscape for signs that it's ready for picking: well after chives have come up in the yard, toward the end of saskatoon blooming, and right around the time fresh spruce tips appear. That's one of the beauties of foraging: you have to attune yourself to the seasonality of things. Phenology, they call it – the timing of cycles of plants and other organisms, and how these relate to climate and other species. You can't find this timing on a calendar because it's a relative thing, depending on conditions; instead, you need to watch for clues and pay attention to how a season is progressing.
Maybe that's partly what I love about stinging nettle – its picking season coincides with a time of year when spring is in full swing, but summer's heat and intense whelm of life has yet to arrive. Collecting the tender tops is an immersion of the senses. Morel hunters often say you need to "get your mushroom eyes on"; similarly, you have to spot a few nettles before your eyes begin to pick out its pattern amongst the other foliage. When you return for the same plant year after year, you begin to recognize it like an old friend. The insects and birds form a soundscape as you pick that's also phenological; particular to this nettle place and time. The scent and gentle sting of the plant round out the sensory experience. (Taste comes later, but I do salivate imagining the rich flavour of nettles sautéed with garlic, or made into pesto or "nettle-kopita".)
For someone like me who tends to walk briskly and dislike sitting idle (but who gets really fired up by food!), this sort of active immersion in the natural world is just the thing. I'll go home with something delicious, nutritious and free, but in the process I'll have had to slow down, pay attention, and put my senses into it.
All foraging is like this. Right around the same time as stinging nettle, spruce tips and fireweed shoots are ready for harvest; not long after, it will be rose petals and maybe cow parsnip. How will you know when the wild saskatoons are ripe? I judge by the cultivated ones in my yard, but there are sure to be other signs if you're on the lookout – a certain wildflower going to seed may hint at their readiness, for instance. Experiencing nature with wild food in mind is like a map overlay, paradoxically helping you see more by filtering some items out and providing a focus.
I've started a little phenological journal where I jot down the order of emergence of plants and mushrooms I like to collect, along with other markers of the season. I recommend it! Since climate change is altering the timing of such things, there's concern that, for example, organisms and their food or nectar sources may fail to align temporally. At least in some small way we'll be paying attention and we may notice new relationship patterns develop. We'll have more knowledge of when to find what food on our own landscape. And when we get out there, we can revel in the shared experience of going about the sacred business of feeding ourselves while the birds, the insects, the creatures large and microscopic go about theirs.