Let's see . . . bathing suit, towel, sleeping bag, insect repellent, hiking boots, biodegradable soap, Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. I'm going over a mental checklist of gear for the weekend as my friend Pam and I drive out I-66 to I-81 south. Work deadlines, road rage and kids' sport schedules recede. Finally we bump and wind our way down a two-mile gravel driveway and arrive at Nature Awareness School, a 300-acre mountaintop retreat overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway in Love, Va.
Cast-iron kettles are simmering over a fire pit. Around it, sitting on log stools, the other campers here for the weekend are trading histories. It's an eclectic group of people, ranging from a 20-year-old Penn State student to a septuagenarian couple who say they are studying human and earth energy. Once we latecomers are settled in, Del Hall, the school's founder, begins the weekend's program.
"Did you ever want to see an alien?" he demands. "Just take a look in the mirror. We are the only species who don't know how to live on our own planet." Hall is a man on a mission, worried that modern society has become too fearful and distrusting of the natural world. This weekend he and his wife, Lynne, will teach us about edible wild plants, but they also run workshops on tracking animals, building log cabins, tanning hides and the like. With his booming voice and intense demeanor, he is Mother Nature's own drill sergeant. "Could you walk out of this building, buck naked like a deer, and live, survive, even thrive? The truth is that everything we need is really right here. Water, nourishment, material for shelter and warmth. We've lost our awareness of our place in nature."
The Peterson field guide will be our bible for the weekend. Every plant, Hall explains, has at least four characteristics that we must match to the sketches in the guide. We'll examine flowers for color, number of petals and shape of petals. Leaf patterns can be alternate or opposite, basal or terminal. Individual leaves can be ovate, round or heart-shaped. And their edges may be smooth or lobed or saw-toothed or double saw-toothed. It all starts to feel a little overwhelming. I'd been picturing a walk in the woods while picking a user-friendly snack, but, well, it's more complicated than that. Some edible plants look remarkably similar to some fairly poisonous plants.
When the lecture concludes, we campers all head to one of two rustic shelters where we'll sleep. One is an open structure that recalls the manger in a Nativity scene, minus the baby and the sheep. The other looks like a tepee made out of wood and is called a wickiup. Heaps of fresh straw are piled on the hard-packed dirt floors. Sleeping bags are layered over the straw. The stars, the moon, the fire pit and a few flashlights are the only illumination.
It's beautiful, but I've come to the camp with Pam to celebrate her 50th birthday and we know we'll want more than some straw between our sensitive backs and the hard earth. So we hike back to the car to get our air mattress. The battery-operated inflator makes an ungodly noise out here in the woods, but we are unrepentant. We struggle back to the wickiup and squeeze the very large mattress through the rather small opening. It's well worth it.
In the morning we have the choice of a very refreshing dip in the pond or an exhilarating shower under a spring-fed hose. Most of us opt for a third choice, doing without. Blue corn grits and blue corn pancakes are served for breakfast, made all the more tasty by our having ground the corn the night before.
At 9 a.m. the wild, bleating call of a sheep's horn summons us into the open-air classroom. Hall sings the praises of the nutritional and medicinal value of the dandelion, "this so-called weed, suburban America's public enemy No. 1." Its leaves, roots and flowers are all edible and high in vitamin A, calcium, iron and potassium, he reports.
In the afternoon we forage around the school grounds, looking for ingredients for the evening's salad. By day's end, I have discovered that my back yard is full of wonderful edible things. Where my neighbors, through hard work and chemicals, have nothing but grass, I am growing not only plenty of dandelions but also gill-over-the-ground, which Del says makes a great herbal tea, and common plantains, which he describes as a natural antiseptic. Rather than neglecting my lawn, it turns out, I have been nurturing the habitats of valuable herbs and plants. I feel very productive, and a little smug.
Sunday morning we wake to an atmosphere of smoke and anticipation. Today we prove our mettle at the kettle. We've been given a list of wild edibles to find for one last lunch before we head home.
We head up the mountain trail armed with shovels, pickaxes, hatchets, rubber gloves and lots of bags. First we stalk the wild strawberry and discover that sweet, spontaneous explosion of taste. Next we fill bags and bags with clover flowers. Then come wild grape plants, whose leaves will be stuffed and whose tart tendrils will liven up the stir-fry Lynne has planned. Nettles we give the rubber-glove treatment. Any hiker has probably felt the burning sensation of brushing by nettles in the woods, but after being boiled in three changes of water, they make a superb cream soup.
The quiet murmuring of the group along our hike is punctuated now and then by Del, who thanks the plants emphatically and often. Greenbrier shoots and roots, dandelion roots, day lilies and burdock root all will add crunch to the stir-fry.
Back at camp, after much scrubbing, peeling, chopping and stirring -- and, yes, adding a few ingredients, like eggs and chili sauce, not found out here in the wild -- we dig into a feast of acorn bread, clover fritters, nettle soup, stuffed grape leaves and a giant vegetable stir-fry. As graduation ceremonies go, this one tastes delicious.
Travel Advisory: Nature Awareness School is off the Blue Ridge Parkway, 16 miles south of I-64; 540-377-6068, www.nature.valleyva.com. Weekend programs on wild edible plants this year are June 2-4 and August 4-6 ($155 to $175, including meals).