I have always been a gardener.
When I was a small child, I tended to the strawberries that filled a narrow space of earth between our suburban home and the driveway. That was the extent of the garden in my youth. Homes in the 1970s were prized for their lawns and not their vegetable gardens. Edibles were not encouraged. The purslane growing between the sidewalk cracks was considered a weed and only eaten by me and a few friends that I dared to try its delicious tanginess. Both my parents came from poor farming families and they had no desire to ever dig in the dirt again. My sisters didn’t like to get their hands dirty. But I was different. It didn’t seem right to let that row of lifeless dirt that narrowly escaped becoming more suburban lawn to go unappreciated. At first, the odds seemed stacked against anything growing there. Little sunshine. No compost or mulch. Yet, those dozen or so strawberry plants that my father purchased at the Walker hardware store every spring gave me fruit despite being terribly neglected of light and nutrients. I was certain it was due to my words of encouragement and my diligence of watering during the hot Ohio summers. Really, it was the sheer determination on the part of the plants to survive and reproduce.
I remember harvesting my few prized beauties. They felt like jewels in my hands. I shared my bounty proudly with my parents and hesitantly with my sisters. I even garnered a sought-after wink from my father. That wink served to motivate me to continue my gardening pursuits until I became a teenager with more important things to tend to than a strawberry patch. Yet, it wasn’t long before I was out on my own and found myself with a little bit of ground to cultivate. I was instantly reminded of my father’s approval and a love of digging in the dirt. Familial roots. Connection to the earth. Being a part of the lifecycle. These are difficult ties to break.
My gardens over the years include everything from a too large coffee farm on the side of a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii that was really more jungle than orchard or garden, to a tiny apartment balcony in Berlin, Germany filled with containers that never ceased to amaze me with their bounty. I have left more asparagus beds and strawberry patches for future owners than I can count. Big or small, gardens have been a part of my home and lifestyle for the past 40 years.
As I settle into the French countryside with plenty of land to cultivate, I find that I prefer smaller scale garden areas and containers. It might be age talking but negotiating large tillers, mowers, and the expense of building fencing to protect one’s hard work seems wasteful of precious resources such as time and money. Not to mention, the investment of bending over to weed day in and day out is becoming less desirable. Having had many varied experiences as a gardener, I have come to the conclusion that a smaller walled potager just off the kitchen that can be maintained with a bit of daily attention, meadows that provide both flowers to adorn my home and habitat for local wildlife, and surprises of bulbs tucked just off the beaten path that winds through the woods, are my best choices for cultivating a garden. Sure, a few bulbs go the way of the squirrel, but enough are left to be worthy of the effort. The meadow has only a small window of beauty at its flowering peak; yet, it serves as an important ecosystem year-round for the fauna. That kitchen garden might seem small and haphazard, but it produces an abundance of organic, culinary ingredients throughout the seasons. Here on these nine hectares in southwestern France, I’m learning that the nearby forest, just a short stroll away, has much to offer both my culinary desires and my artist’s dyepot. With that revelation, I am embracing the noticeable shift within me from gardener to forager.
An old dog can learn new tricks.
Foraging is very different from gardening. In January, I begin to pore over seed catalogs, take stock of what I preserved in the fall, and plan the spring beds considering companion plantings, appropriate rotations, and soil improvements. I consult detailed journals and evaluate which plants did well where and which need to find a new spot. My potager might look a bit haphazard with its combination of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs. But it is well-designed with consideration for color, size, use, and efficiency of space. The exact opposite can be said for the way I forage. Now, it is all about the unplanned hunt and the excitement of something unexpected finding me. I forage with no preconceived ideas about what might land in my gathering basket. Just a morning spent wandering and observing. There are times - especially in the autumn - where I might be searching for a particular plant because I know there is a limited time to harvest or I desire a specific color for a sweater going onto the needles. Oak galls and truffles fall into this category of foraging with a purpose. However, I mostly enjoy the stroll and the possible thrill of discovery. Gardening and foraging serve both sides of my personality: the researcher and the artist.
Fall is the perfect time to forage. The season is exploding with edible and color possibilities. Acorns and black walnut hulls. Chestnuts and mushrooms. It is truffle country here in southwest France. Quercy is known for this prized culinary ingredient and locals keep the knowledge of its whereabouts a closely guarded secret. The region is also rich in mushrooms. I am not yet confident in my ability to forage for edible mushrooms. I allow the experts to do this and I pay them handsomely at the local farmers market for their expertise and time. In the fall, I focus on collecting materials for dyes and inks. There is a treasure trove of things to gather to make liquid gold for this fiber artist.
The first lesson in foraging is patience. Some mornings, I come back with an empty basket. Other days, I stumble upon a renegade sumac bush with berries at their perfect ripeness. To be a forager, you must have patience. You might discover a black walnut tree and see the green husks that surround the nuts. But you have to wait for the right time to harvest. Wait months until they turn brown and yield the rich dark color for your dyepot. The same is true for acorns. You have to be patient while they mature, fall to the ground, the nut easily giving way from its top, the tannins ready to be released into the dye bath. Surrounded by oak trees, it is easy for me to gather a small basket full of acorns and still leave plenty for the squirrels and door mice that are also foraging for winter.
There is patience, too, in processing your found materials into color. I divide the acorns from their tops and submerge each into their own newly acquired, large, vintage, glass jars. I add a bit of rusty bolts, screws, and scrap metal for the iron and place the covered jars in the elements for the next month or so. With time, hopefully a bit of sunshine, and an occasional stir, their rich grey-black hue develops and is captured by the ancient wooden dye spoon. You could use a slow cooker or a pot over the stove and simmer the acorns for a few hours or even a few days. I prefer fermenting the materials in the sun. Let nature and time do the processing. When soaked with iron, acorns produce an almost black color, perfect for dye bath or ink. The acorn tops with iron create a pale shade of grey that works well mixed with other dyes to create a muted color palette. Acorns without the addition of iron, provide a light tan color when allowed to ferment over a bit of time.
Patience. It’s the main ingredient when foraging and producing color.
Silvery Acorn Cap Dye
Large glass jar
2 cups acorn caps
A few rusty metal pieces
Approximately 4 cups water
Strainer and coffee filters
Glass jars with lids
1. Combine acorn caps and rusty objects in a large glass jar if fermenting outside or in an old pot reserved just for making dyes if cooking on a stove. Cover with water and a lid and allow to boil gently for 2-3 hours or remain in the covered glass jar outside for a month or more.
2. Strain the liquid through a strainer and then again through a coffee filter to remove any sediment. Test the color on paper or fiber to see if you achieved the desired result. If the color is too light, reduce the liquid in a dye pot over the stove. If the color is too dark, add more water. Store in covered glass jars.
3. I often cover my jars with a linen cloth and allow the liquid to evaporate in a dark pantry. The color intensifies and becomes more permanent as air interacts with the liquid. Mold might form on the top and I stir it into the dye, as per medieval dye manuscripts, allowing it to become a part of the final dye bath. You can also add a few whole cloves to the glass jar as a preservative. Seal with a tight lid.
If autumn is the time to forage, Quercy is the perfect region to hunt for materials to make color. 40,000 years ago, humankind went through the same process to gather and produce their Paleolithic artwork found deep within the limestone caverns. Constant temperature and humidity and the absence of light have preserved the paintings in Pech Merle. It is one of the many prehistoric caves in France, and one of the few still opened to the public. Under the light of small stone lamps, individuals created animals with one fluid movement from pigments of charcoal and oxidized iron with brushes or their fingers or blown through constructed tubes. Researchers and artists continue to study the designs and attempt to recreate the color palette from natural materials close to the caves. In many ways, little has changed. People have been leaving marks with foraged berries, burnt sticks, and colored minerals since they have deemed the value of leaving a historic record.
Humans by their very nature are hunters and gatherers. It satisfies a deep desire for connection. In France, there is a long continued tradition of foraging that connects individuals to a sense of heritage and place: Berries for confiture, mushrooms for soups, herbs for tisanes, elderflowers for liquor, pigments to express one’s creativity and leave a historical record. For me, my foraged dyes serve as evidence of this moment in my new home. Attached to the produced color are memories of where I gathered the materials, the uncertainty of the final outcome, and the delight when the effort renders a dye worthy of paper or fiber. It is a record of color and my life here in France. While I still tend to a garden and a new patch of strawberries, the forests and valleys of the ancient region of Quercy remind me that I am a part of something larger. Foraging connects me to this countryside, to the local ways, and permits me the opportunity to tell the story of one gardener becoming a forager.
I think that deserves a wink from a father’s eye.
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