THE FIRST lesson of this class commenced long ago . . . on television.
"Have you ever eaten a pine tree?" asked Euell Gibbons, the avuncular naturalist turned Grapenuts pitch man. "Some parts are edible."
Remember? For a whole generation of granola munchers, Gibbons sowed the idea that real grain goodness lay outdoors. Forget health food stores, forget the organics aisle of the Safeway. No place that puts a Mack truck and a middleman between you and the harvest is the ultimate source of wholesome nutrition. For that, youhave to do your shopping out in the wilderness. Only, hunting and gathering with your own grubby hands requires someone to fill in where Gibbons left off. Just which parts of the pine tree, exactly, are edible?
Tim MacWelch is here to answer the question. "Welcome to the Summer Wild Edible Plants class," MacWelch says by way of invocation. "Have some spicebush tea."
About a dozen of us are gathered in a circle around a cold fire ring, sipping steaming mugs of herb tea harvested from a local shrub. The early mist is still heavy here in the shadows of a tall Virginia woods, with shrouds of fog swirling palely through shafts of morning sun. Behind us is a lovingly constructed bark tepee (or maybe it is a wickiup); and 100 feet away is a second one. This cluster of anachronisms on a wooded back corner of his parent's Warrenton farm is the classroom of MacWelch's weekend wilderness school, Earth Connection.
For most of the students who have driven here from Rockville and Washington and Charlottesville, the attraction began well before Gibbons's cereal commercial. It dates back to their pioneer ancestors and, more importantly, to the aboriginal people that were here even earlier. People come to MacWelch's school -- and others like it -- to refresh themselves on a range of skills they never had, the means to keep themselves fed, sheltered and healthy using nothing but materials found in the wilds. In addition to seasonal edible plants classes (the autumn version of which occurs in two sessions this Saturday and Sunday), MacWelch teaches how to build rudimentary traps, to construct a basic shelter, to make stone tools, to tan hides using animal brains and to build a fire without matches or lighter fluid. The friction fire-making skills, particularly, command reverent attention -- practically no twig or vine is stepped over in MacWelch's company without evaluating its potential as a hand drill or a bow drill.
"Fire is really at the center of survival," MacWelch says. "I've taken week-long classes on fire -- just fire."
These atavistic skills, long atrophied in the modern human, are enjoying something of a renaissance. Reasons for the upsurge in interest include Y2K and other vague millennial apprehensions, the booming overall popularity of outdoor recreation and the cachet of all things Native American, particularly the stewardship of natural resources.
"It just seems that the world is getting more and more crazy," says Greg Grymes, a surveyor from Charlottesville. "I mean things are dying. I think more people are seeking out this caretaking mentality of how to do things in greater harmony with nature. Even when you go to the grocery store, you're so disconnected from your food."
Grymes, like MacWelch himself, is a disciple of Tom Brown, the New Jersey-based guru of the primitive skills movement. Brown's school in the Jersey Pine Barrens is a veritable wilderness university, with satellite campuses cropping up as far afield as California. Brown's offerings -- from basic survival to tracking to search and rescue to "Advanced Awareness" -- is heavily leavened with the Native American philosophy that Brown learned from his Indian mentor. That new age flavor is not much in evidence in MacWelch's school, at least not in the one-day course I'm taking.
As we sip our tea and nibble on muffins made with indigenous wild cherries, MacWelch briefs us on the day to come. We'll amble around the edges of the forest as he teaches us to distinguish certain tasty plants from the general indistinct blur of undergrowth that overruns eastern forests. Some we'll eat on the spot; for others, MacWelch will describe the cooking -- and sometimes detoxifying -- they require.
"Look at a bottle of weed killer," MacWelch says. "Most of the plants listed on the label are in this course."
MacWelch is clean-cut handsome with a dark pony tail and an easy facility with Latin names that inspires confidence. "Excuse me while I rattle on about botany for a few minutes," he says before launching into a tight lecturette on leaf formation and structural classification. It's clear he's no seat-of-the-pants amateur.
"I don't do any experimenting," he says of his approach to ingesting a new discovery. "None. If it's not listed as safe in 10 top-shelf books, it doesn't make the cut for me. The absolute bottom line is, if in doubt, don't eat it."
After reviewing a few other fundamental rules (don't harvest near roads, dumps or other contaminated areas; eat only small amounts of plants new to you; become solidly familiar with the poisonous specimens) we head out. Every 10 minutes or so we cluster around some unassuming bush and MacWelch describes its hidden culinary glories. We follow along in the detailed, photo-illustrated guide that he has prepared and given to each of us.
A few examples: lamb's quarters is a ubiquitous leafy annual that cooks up into delicious greens. Catnip makes a mildly sedative tea. The common mullein also makes a fine tea (but its leaves cause a rash when used as toilet paper). The white flowers of the yucca are lovely in a salad. Crush the rootstock of the greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) to create a powder used to make gelatin, thicken stews or diluted as a refreshing soft drink.
And on and on. We stoop over dozens of plants, pick handfuls of fruit, dig buckets of roots. After a while it begins to seem that all of creation is here for nothing but our noshing. And as MacWelch points out, the pickings here are relatively slim.
"It's not very hard to ID plants here on the East Coast," he says. "There are just not that many -- maybe 500 edible plants. Now in South America things get pretty gonzo."
Not that we don't have our own truly weird delicacies. We cross a small stream at the edge of a field -- where MacWelch's father's cattle eye us curiously -- and gather around a spindly plant. "This is a jack-in-the pulpit," MacWelch says. He digs up a wrinkled little corn at the base of the stalk and displays it. If you gather enough of these, slice them thin, dry them for months and months and grind them up, you end up with a few teaspoons of powder that taste sort of like cocoa. But, if you eat them too soon, before the calcium oxalate crystals dry out completely, they will shred the lining of your mouth and throat like particles of glass. A heretical craving for Ovaltine enters my head.
We move on. MacWelch shows us chicory that makes excellent coffee, yellow wood sorrel that is a "killer hangover cure," yucca root that can be turned into soap and Mexican tea that reportedly serves as an anti-flatulent (to avoid any embarrassment around the campfire with other survivalists).
"They say there's something out here for any discomfort," says MacWelch of the pharmacopias and cornucopias spreading out before us. "It can be mind-boggling at first. Don't get overwhelmed. Start off in your own backyard."
We head back to the tepee for a lunch of boiled lamb's quarters, garlic mustard greens and venison. Then it's into the deep woods to find the edible trees and the edible plants that grow in their shade: black cherry, sweet cherry, sassafras, pawpaw, the common blue violet and many others. MacWelch is a thorough teacher, and by the end of the afternoon I'm buzzing with a new understanding of the supermarket that is an eastern deciduous forest. There's a lot to eat out here.
Still, I never did learn which part of the pine tree is edible.
EARTH CONNECTION offers two separate sessions of its Fall Wild Edible Plants class this Saturday and Sunday. A one-day, all-day session includes lunch and costs $50. For more information on the Earth Connection schedule of classes, see its Web site at www.earth-connection.com. Or contact Earth Connection, 6197 James Madison Hwy., Warrenton, VA 20187-7314; 540/270-2531; or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Tom Brown's wilderness courses, as well as a listing of wilderness skills clubs and schools nationwide, visit www.trackerschool.com.