Last Morsel—A Farmer Forages

cattails

Written By

Julia Shipley

Written on

September 01 , 2009

During cross-country excursions in college to nuclear reactors, desert lettuce fields, the Glen Canyon dam and other heartbreaking landscapes, I decided the best way not to perpetuate the hell of modern life would be to learn to grow my own food. To that end, I spent my 20s working as an apprentice on small organic vegetable farms and dairies, then eventually purchased six acres in Craftsbury on which to exercise my dissent. For the past five years I have been raising milk and beef cows, lambs, meat and laying hens, turkeys, and vegetables, in addition to teaching and writing.

Then I changed my mind. Sort of. In the middle of winter, in the middle of a book about the shortcomings of farming,* I realized I knew the difference between chard and kale, frisee and mizuna, a currant from a blueberry, but on my lawn, in the woods, by the river, I was an alien among locals. Between the sentences “…all agriculture depends on controlling and remaking the natural world…” and “The genius of hunter gatherers is in the balance of need with resource; the reliance on a blend of…a naturalist’s love of detailed knowledge and commitment to respectful relationships between people,” I realized that my “grow your own” solution was incomplete. Maybe, I thought, as the snow piled up, it was time to meet my vegetative neighbors—not the plants I had imposed upon the land, but the plants more native to this place.  

I enrolled in a class at Wisdom of the Herbs School in East Calais and committed to spending one Sunday a month this past summer in total abstinence from dominance (no pinching potato beetles, no earth moving, no grass slaying…), learning about the plants that grow in the woods, along the roadside, in meadows, uncultivated by humans. Since May, my 15 classmates and I have been learning to identify species using a dichotomous key (is the flower regular or irregular or parts indistinguishable?), to harvest with gratitude and respect, to wash the dirt away completely, and to prepare and eat together these plants that didn’t begin with our winter seed order, these plants that abound around us.

Suddenly the burdock I’ve been dueling with in the sheep pasture isn’t my foe, it is potential medicine; the milkweed, poisonous to my milk cow, is a meal (if prepared correctly) to me; and that durn dandelion has turned into an angel-headed hipster, a source of salads, fritters, coffee, and good liver health.

In our closing circle at the end of each class, the school’s director, Annie McCleary, emphasizes: now you are teachers, now you can share this knowledge. On a recent Sunday, after my class, my neighbor and I were exploring a ghost road that emerges by a swamp. “Did you know you can use the cattail pollen as a kind of flour?” He looked doubtful. So I took his hand and bent the fat brown part of the cattail over it, gently tapping the pollen out, ‘til his palm, held open like a person offering sugar to a horse, was golden. Then, as Annie did, and I did, he lifted his hand to his mouth and licked the dust.

* Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World (North Point Press, 2001)

About the Author

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley wrote this article on a desk she stuck in her cow barn. With a grant from the Vermont Arts Council, she’s completing a book of braided essays titled, Hewn: Dispatches from Broken Ground. Since July she has been a writer in residence at the Helen Day Art Center’s Habitat for Artists in Stowe, both drawing and writing about farm tools. Readers who know of farmer-writers she may have overlooked, or who simply wish to chime in with thoughts on the literature of agriculture.

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Home Stories Last Morsel Last Morsel—A Farmer Forages