In the Wild – The Martha’s Vineyard Times

The title of Rebecca Randall Gilbert’s wonderful book, “Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager: Common Wild Plants to Nourish Your Body & Soul”, reflects the nature of her writing, which is filled with her own sage advice, observations, personal stories, thoughts -provoking perspectives on the world, especially the rich magic of plants.

Gilbert considers plants to be our wise elders because, she tells us, “the plant kingdom, their ancestors the fungi and even the older cyanobacteria had already oxygenated the earth’s atmosphere long before the arrival of animals. For each of us personally, our individual relationship with the plants of the world began at birth, when we took our first breath of oxygen-rich air…and that relationship continues with every breath we take.

Gilbert began foraging for food at age 6 when she spent the summer with her grandmother at Martha’s Vineyard. Since then, she has been exploring the subject – and grazing on the same farm. Gilbert is an educator at heart, sharing a variety of rural skills at Native Earth Teaching Farm, which she and her husband opened to the public in 2002.

When asked, why weeds? Gilbert says, “I mainly focus on plants that came from Europe with my colonial ancestors. They are common, not necessarily invasive, but readily available. They are still somewhere!

The book grew out of foraging visits to Camp Jabberwocky, the oldest disabled sleep camp in America. Gilbert structured her chapters around the eight courses she and the campers took during a foraging season. Sprinkled with stylish, illustrated drawings, recipes, hands-on activities and plant profiles that illustrate the respective lesson. Whether you open any page at random or read it cover to cover, this little book calls out to be read.

This is not a text focused on how to identify common edibles, but, she writes, “instead…how to enjoy them, how to approach learning about plants and how to deepen the connections that already exist.It is intended to give you the motivation and tools to use these plants.

Gilbert begins with why to search, insights into the wisdom that plants provide, safety and comfort, “green literacy” – who learns from plants – and a host of other fundamentals. There is a course on leaves as a staple; roots, seeds and sprouts; take advantage of invasive plants; edible flowers; find flavor matches; work with fermentation; healing first aid for forager bees; and cooking techniques. The over 50 recipes are easy and enticing. Substitute crispy leaves for potato chips, which can be made with washed and dried leaves, stems removed, tossed with a few drops of oil, baked at 250°F until crisp. Other enticing recipes include dandelion fritters, easy seaweed cake, seed crackers, and even pet treats. “I hope readers leave with at least one or two things they want to try right away!” Gilbert says of the book. “Most of the recipes and suggestions are simple, ‘folk’ food and medicine, and don’t require us to be botanists or chefs.”

Tucked into the pages are all sorts of fascinating facts, like cooked and raw vegetables are usually dressed in a combination of fat and something sour. Part of the reason it tastes so good is that this combination of fat, acid, and plant makes the nutrients in greens much more bioavailable — more digestible.

In the first aid section for foragers, we learn that foraging isn’t just about consuming your bounty. The section’s wonderful opening is an example of Gilbert’s approachable style: “One of the pleasures of becoming a forager is that you feel more and more comfortable in the outdoors. The whole environment is your living room. There are snacks, entertainment, work to do, and constant entertainment. She then goes on to describe three powerful common herbs for healing and recipes for salves, oil, balm, liniments and even mouthwash.

In the foreword, Michael Leon, the Camp Jabberwocky counselor who worked with Gilbert, writes, “I hope you find this book, like its author, full of wisdom and magic. Let these pages be your invitation to the delicious and unexpected world of secret greens – hidden in plain sight, and just waiting to be tasted.

“Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager: Common Wild Plants to Nourish Your Body & Soul,” by Rebecca Randall Gilbert, $16.99, softcover. Available online and at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and signed copies at Native Earth Teaching Farm.

Gilbert will talk about the book on Saturday, September 17 at 10:30 a.m. at the Edgartown Library.

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