One of my favorite pastimes is foraging, for books as well as for weeds and plants. I never pass up a library’s used book sale and when in NYC, The Strand’s outdoor bins, especially the 48-cent one, never lets me down. A favorite herb book was gathered there and more recently a copy of Weeds (A Golden Guide) by Alexander C. Martin.
Imagine my shock when I opened the book and looked at the Table of Contents, including, “The Harm Weeds Cause, Cost to farmers; additional losses in control of lawn and garden pests, respiratory ailments; interference with waterways and outdoor recreation.” Published in 1972, I wonder if this mindset laid the ground work for the pervasive use of harmful neonicotinoids, now in use on many fields and farms, engineered to kill weeds and terribly harmful to insects, pollinators and wildlife. To be fair, Martin does include a mention of the benefits of weeds—“Many kinds of weeds are sources of drugs, medicines and dyes. Songbirds, gamebirds, and other kinds of wildlife depend to a very large extent on weed seeds for their existence.” However, the overall emphasis of the book remains on identification and subsequent elimination of these so-called pesky plants.
As you are aware, dear reader, weeds are some of my favorite things, to be encouraged and relished, in the kitchen, the dye pot and the remedy jar. Thankfully, many moons ago, Euell Gibbons’ groundbreaking foraging book, published in 1962, Stalking the Wild Asparagus found its way into my hands from my library’s yearly sale. Gibbons (1911-1975) began his foraging as a child.
Gibbons recounts, to the writer John McPhee:
“Wild food was our calendar—a signal of the time of year. In the spring, we had wild asparagus and poke and all the early greens. Lamb’s-quarters came in the late spring and strawberries in the early summer, then mulberries and blackberries. In the late summer, we had purslane, wild plums, maypops—that’s a kind of hard-shell passion fruit—and in the fall there were plenty of muscadines, wild pecans, hickory nuts, black walnuts. As it got a little colder, there were persimmons, hackberries and black haws. Wherever we went, I asked what the Indians ate. We considered all these things delicacies, and we would not have not gathered them, anymore than we would have let things in the garden go to waste.”
Sometimes one has to take the good with the bad, or filter it. While I won’t eliminate the weeds, all ‘good’ to me, I will use the pocket sized Weeds book, as I walk the fields, for positive plant identification. Gibbons’ books, filled with ‘good’ writing—descriptions, stories and uses– will continue to inspire me. Perhaps, it is time to make that ‘weed’ calendar/chart, reminding me when to look for and harvest them.
Alexander C. Martin illustrations by Jean Zallinger A Golden Guide Weeds, (Golden Press, 1972), 6-7, 8-9.
John McPhee, The New Yorker April 6, 1968 (pgs. 45-104), accessed on line June 2, 2015, pgs. 50. If you are a subscriber to The New Yorker (access to their archives is free), this article by McPhee recounts a camping trip that he and Gibbons took and the 16 foraged meals they ate together.