Saturday, April 5, 2014

Walking Far From Home

One of the many, many wondrous things about springtime, is that it makes me incredibly nostalgic and delighted about living where I live. I first came here in spring, and this season always takes me back to when I was first falling in love with the Island.

Spring to me, is different from all the other seasons, cathartic and potent. All seasons, of course denote change and have their specific character and effect, but spring is different to me. Maybe it's the years of living in the frozen North, but there's a emotional intensity to this season. It always seems to come in with a crash and a bang, a great relief, but with its own special set of challenges.

When I was very small, we lived in the basement floor, the "stone foot", a hundred-and-fifty-year-old cherry blossom-pink wooden villa in what was then a rather rundown, sketchy neighborhood. Apparently often in the spring one of the neighbors would interrupt someone tossing gasoline onto one of the outside walls, because it was the season when the pyromaniacs would come out in the spring and try to torch the house. The local police attributed this phenomena to "spring madness", a bona fide folk belief that if you're already a little (or very) unstable spring is the season you go off the rails.

You may have colloquially heard of being "mad as a march hare", and the Roman "Ides of March", was celebrated with revelry and wild parties. The Ides of March (made infamous by the murder of Caesar) may have been celebrated on a full moon, which, again according to folk belief and backed up by crime statistics is another time when lunacy (right?) runs high. There's been studies linking the correlation of rise in suicide in the spring, as well. I wonder if there's statistics for how many affairs, reckless declarations of love and happy accident babies are conceived in these wild months?

It's my gut belief it's the sudden abundance of light and life that sets our emotions reeling, whether they be positive, or negative. The hustle and bustle of spring chores tied to the suddenly luminous skies calling us to wander into the wilderness, certainly makes me personally feel a little reckless.

Which is why it's all the more important to me that I consume much of the spring's first medicines, the grounding dandelions, chickweeds, cleavers and, of course, my plant helper, Urtica Dioica. The simple act of walking in the woods, harvesting wild foods, has a decidedly calming effect on anyone's mood. I like to take these timeouts from chores and work and still feel the productive push that spring inevitable brings. It's good to have a focus, because sometimes I feel like I'm just going to wander off, keep walking and think wild thoughts, drift further from the homestead and the tidy side of life that also demands my attention this season.

Last year, I wrote about how one of the lasting traditions of this blog are my yearly posts on nettles and so instead of repeating how redundant they must be at this point, I'm instead going to assume that y'all are wholly interested in this sanity-preserving tradition and do a little refresher course for those of you who've joined us in the last twelve months.

Urtica Dioica, the common nettle, or sometimes stinging nettle, grows wild and free both in the Northern Americas and Northern Europe. Look for it on the edges of the forests, or in disturbed soils (when doing this, pay heed to where you are and make sure you don't gather food or medicine in compromised places) in open, but moist and shady places. The harvest time is early spring.

Most people know stinging nettles from childhood, as in that they sting. The stingers are small hairs mostly on the stems and the sting is fairly mild. Chewed-up plantain aids in mollifying it, especially for kids who can experience it more intensely. I find that I don't really get stung anymore collecting, have never really worn gloves, simply taking the occasional sting, as my friend Sarah likes to say "an arthritis treatment". However if that's what's keeping you from gathering, get some gloves.

An easy way to collect is to clip the very tops of the plants into a vessel with scissors. Typically you'll find conflicting information on whether you can only use the tips, so here's my take on it: medicinal nettle can just be the top 2-4 leaves of young nettle plants, in food use leaves 6-8 are also totally acceptable and not bitter. Nettles do not become toxic until they go to seed, they lower leaves are simply less potent, stringier and acidic. The toxicity

The benefits of nettle are many: they're rich in calcium, good for preventing UTIs, alleviating allergies, help repair compromised immune systems and of course  they're anti-inflammatory, hence the arthritis stinging remedy.

If you're using them for tincturing, make sure you dry them first. They're great as a fresh tea, but dried works good too.  My favorite food uses, which of course are also medicinal, are pesto, pancakes and as greens in place of kale or spinach. Oil, chopping and cooking have a mollifying effect on their sting and therefor you don't need to blanch them to make pesto.

I get asked for recipes sometimes, and while I'm not wild about posting them, as my cooking is somewhat cursory and off-the-cuff, there is a Finnish classic that I thought I'd share with you guys.

This soup is typically made with spinach, but in the spring my mother would sometimes use nettles instead and my favorite childhood cookbook also has a recipe for it. I use this book a lot still actually, it has a lot of classic Scandinavian recipes and a lovely hippie-bent.

This recipe is wholly adapted and bears almost no resemblance to the original. Go figure.

Get some nettles. About a quart.
Simmer some garlic and onions in oil.
When they've browned add the nettles. If you don't have a food processor, chop em up fine first.
Add water, about 2-3 cups. I don't know, so that it looks like a fairly thick soup. You can replace this with broth, or add stock, or whatever.
Add 2-3 tsp of cornmeal, or if you don't care about gluten, any ol' flour will do. Bring to a boil.
Stir. Add milk, if you'd like, maybe 1/2 a cup. I used goat milk. Turn down, or off.
Add salt and pepper  to taste.
Soft boil one egg per eater.
If you haven't chopped up your nettles yet, run through food processor. Watch out. Hot.

Serve with eggs, salt, pepper and crackers. Eat all at once, or freeze. This soup is rather perishable .

Keeping the madness of spring at bay is tricky business. The right balance of work and play, dreams and grounded-ness. I hope this soup will help you get there.

Happy Wild Life! Go wildcrafting, frolicking and read this amazing offering from Mary at nightfall.

And remember: If you're planning to poison yourself by eating the wrong stuff, I'll be so sad, but I won't be held accountable. Okay? Good. You're a grown-up. Whee!


  1. I find your nettle collecting so interesting. I grew up in this area, but before reading your blog I had no idea they could be consumed. You always make me want to try collecting some and also fiddle heads! So much to learn... My husband and I recently got into mushroom hunting, but he is much better at identifying than I am. Many years ago I remember seeing an add for a week long women's course somewhere in the PNW where you canoed and camped for a week and learned all about local foraging. You packed light and only ate what you foraged for the whole trip!
    Also: the title of your blog post is one of my favorite Iron and Wine songs. It puts a lump in throat every time. So beautiful...
    Happy Spring!

  2. I have always loved the equinoxes more than the solstices---something about the transition to spring, and to fall, speaks to me more intensely. Thanks for the nettle recipe and the lovely pictures :)

  3. Once upon a time I purchased a stinging nettle plant and asked D. to plant it. He doesn't remember where he did that, so we've not yet had nettles. However, there is a buttload of kale coming out of our garden, and the combination of onion & garlic with some of the younger tender leaves would work nicely. It reminds me of a traditional dish that my (Portuguese) family eats-- made with a potato broth, but I like the use of flour to thicken instead and the soft boiled eggs :) Will have to try!

  4. I like your disclaimer. ;-)

    And as someone who is new to the nettle world, thank you for taking the time to share.

  5. nettle-nerds, unite!! i just love nettles and consume them year round, in one form or another. i love these pictures of you, with your basket. :)

  6. I am leaving for a well-deserved visit to my 'secret garden' in the cemetery right now, and though I doubt nettles have appeared through the snow, I will certainly take the spirit of your recipe with me :o) - love you Milla !

  7. i love your annual nettle post! i might finally try this if i can get out of the city to forage. i had the worst/funniest experience with stinging nettles as a little kid - i stepped in some while hiking and then immediately stepped in a pile of fresh cow shit. i remember being like "man, this is the worst," ha. good to know the sting isn't as bad for adults, and this time around i'll watch my step. :)

  8. Ha, I never knew that other people also thought that spring makes people go crazy! I have quietly thought that for years. I guess it must be true. ; ) I think your take on it is right though, not only bad crazy, but good crazy too!
    Also, thanks, your annual nettle post is a great reminder to go out and make something nettle-y.
    Oh, and I posted a wee link to your 'help' post. Sending you both lots of good thoughts and wishes!

  9. I know one young gal who is spring crazed indeed...her name starts with an L. Anyway as for nettles I am going to put out a request to my community is anyone knows where I can find them. I am sold by the immune enhancing factor. Plus the simple sweet walk and gather if wildcrafting is an adventure id like to embark upon with my babes. Thank you for once again inspiring dear friend. May the wolves of madness howl at a safe distance ;) and allow you some spring peace as well.