Skunk cabbage and other edibles

With the arrival of spring, plants start emerging as the snow melts back and the weather warms. Would-be foragers begin searching for some of their favorite spring goodies such as ramps, dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and lambs quarters. Many of these early greens are surprisingly nutritious and tasty so it’s easy to see why they are so eagerly sought out. They are sufficiently popular to begin showing up on groceries shelves. But for many going out and gathering them directly from the wild is a traditional rite for welcoming in spring. This having been said, there are some important things to remember about foraging safely.

While a number of wild plants are edible, some are more edible than others. From time to time I hear or read about skunk cabbage being listed as an edible plant. Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae or Arum family with the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus. It is a distant relative of the corpse flower which occasionally appears in the news when a greenhouse hosting the flowering plant is deluged with curious visitors determined to see if it actually smells as bad as its name (according to reports, it does). Likewise skunk cabbage, while not quite as odorous, will release the characteristic aroma the plant derives its name from when the leaves are crushed. While the dried leaves can be used in soups and stews, it is not recommended that you eat it raw as it contains oxalate, a chemical the body uses to make kidney stones and can cause burning of the mouth and throat. It is reputed to have some medicinal properties but is not something you would want to consume on a regular basis. Among Native Americans, it is used as a famine food (one of those things you eat when all the good stuff is gone and you don’t want to start in on the family pets and kids just yet…)

Skunk cabbage is also a good example of a plant many people are vaguely aware of and think they know what it looks like but really don’t. Many think the first large green woodland plant they see growing in the spring is skunk cabbage but it almost certainly is not. The weird arum flowers appear first with the greens only poking out afterwards.

Being able to positively identify any plant you find growing in the wild is absolutely essential before you should even think about harvesting anything. One mistake can very quickly put you in intensive care or worse. My late mother who worked as a nurse in the local hospital years ago, used to tell the cautionary tale of an out-of-state couple who had gone camping in Franconia Notch State Park. It was early spring and the husband spotted some large showy green plants which he was convinced was skunk cabbage. As he had heard it was edible, he was determined to give it a try. I’m not certain what sort of cooking he did (if any) to prepare this plant however when he offered some to his wife, she was quickly put off by its extremely bitter taste and refused to eat it. Her husband, on the other hand, ignored the bad taste and proceeded to eat some of it (no doubt to show his spouse what a wuss she was).

My mother said when they brought him unconscious into the hospital, he had no blood pressure. They were able to save his life, but the doctor on the floor remarked that if the husband had eaten closer to the stem, he would not have survived. The plant he had carelessly consumed was in fact false hellebore, a highly toxic plant not related to the skunk cabbage. The alkaloids in the plant were what nearly killed him. They have a bitter flavor but the husband was apparently oblivious to the warnings his taste buds tried to send him. Fortunately he lived and hopefully learned an important lesson.

This, more than anything else, should make clear why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with your local environment. Attending classes given by plant experts, or just simply buying a copy of a guide book of edible wild plants can get you started on learning to clearly distinguish between what is edible and what should be left alone.

Also it isn’t enough to just learn what the plant looks like, it’s necessary to learn what habitat it prefers as that can sometimes help you separate a wild edible from its toxic look-alike. Since guide books often only show the plant when it is fully grown, make a point to observe its life cycle through the season so you can see its growth pattern. What does it look like when it first emerges, when it matures, what do the flowers (if any) look like and what kind of seeds does it produce? If this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps it is but it’s what needs to be done before you can safely make use of any plant for food or medicine. This is something you don’t want to cut corners on.

Once you do learn what grows in your area, there is another thing to consider. Thanks to pollution and loss of habitat, many wild plants are having a difficult time of it. But overharvesting is one of the biggest problems struggling native flora has to deal with. While the encroachment of civilization has been going on for several centuries here in New Hampshire, the issue has been getting worse in recent years. Too many people are pursuing their favorite plants in wild areas that are dwindling in size and diversity.

Whether it’s for food or medicines, many plants once abundant are vanishing from our fields, wetlands and forests. More people want to engage in wild foraging as a way of reconnecting with nature which is understandable. But rather than harvesting these plants, it would be far better not only to leave them alone but help create more habitats for them so they can spread and restore themselves. Good stewardship is one of our responsibilities, especially if we want to leave anything for our descendants.

“If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either.” – Joseph Wood Krutch

The Travails of Northern Pass

Yes, it’s Northern Pass rant and rave time again. It’s been a while since I posted anything about the project nearly everyone here in northern New Hampshire heartily loathes. I won’t go into the gory details of the project as there is plenty of info both pro and con to be found with just a little Google search. But it’s worth taking a look at the current status of the project and some recent developments to see that the road Northern Pass is going down is starting to get more than a bit rocky.

To hear it from the boosters for this project (which unfortunately includes our current governor) the power that Northern Pass would transmit would provide millions of dollars in energy cost savings, revenue for local tax revenues and generate jobs, etc, etc. Governor Sununu believes the project will be a ‘win-win’ situation for New Hampshire (buyers of inexpensive antique bridges in Brooklyn take note). Les Otten, the developer for the Balsams Resort, has accepted 5 million dollars in loans from the Northern Pass project though he insists the money has nothing to do with his enthusiasm for the project.

Many residents in Northern New Hampshire are having none of this, however. The idea of a butt-ugly line of 10 stories tall electrical pylons marching through the countryside (it’s still largely rural up here) has raised ire on many sides. Attempts to get Eversource and Hydro_Quebec to at least bury the lines has been met with stubborn resistance from the corporations, the main argument being it would be too expensive.

Over the past month, some interesting news has come to light. A story surfaced in early March stating that questions were beginning to arise over who was going to actually pay the cost for the NP project. This arose out of a report in the Quebec press stating that Hydro-Quebec was abandoning Northern Pass. Hydro was quick to state it had no intention of dropping NP but did say that they were not footing the bill for the line going through New Hampshire and Massachusetts rate payers would be paying the tab. If that’s the case, it’s likely to go over like the proverbial lead balloon with our neighbors to the south.

A week later NP attorneys approached the attorney for the intervenor towns of Easton, Sugar Hill and Franconia inviting them to name their conditions if the state approves the project. This was immediately shot down by the Easton selectmen stating that since they don’t want the project going through their area there aren’t going to be any conditions. The selectmen in Sugar Hill also refused the idea of any conditions, being of the opinion (likely well justified) that this would give Eversource and Hydro-Quebec the idea they can push them around.

One possible reason for the sudden confusion over who pays for what may stem from the fact that HQ and Eversource may not have renewed its Transmission Service Agreement (TSA) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a critical omission if true as the TSA would indicate how Eversource will be paid for building the line. Perhaps scenting blood in the water, another utility company, National Grid, has popped up saying it has a project of its own in mind that would take an alternate route than Northern Pass providing renewable power from Canada into New England.

The underlying issue behind all this sturm und drang is what are we going to do about the extravagant use of electricity not just here in New England but basically everywhere electricity is made use of. The increasingly frantic effort to continue living in the style to which we have become accustomed for so long is becoming more evident with each passing year. An enormous price tag comes attached to all the infrastructure that makes the lights come on when you flick that switch on the wall or press the on-button for your tv or stereo. Hydro-Quebec touts its electrical generation as being ‘renewable’ but ignores the fact that all this renewability is based on non-renewable materials; concrete, turbines, generators, power lines all of which have to be created and maintained. Cheap petroleum made all this achievable back in the 20th century but as oil supplies dwindle and become more expensive to extract and refine, all of the products it gives rise to, are becoming more expensive as well. As the 21st century has gotten underway, a painful wakeup call has begun.

Resistance to this wake-up call is intense. Like anyone having a wild party, nobody likes to be told that they are drinking too much and there’s going to be a nasty hangover the next day, not to mention a big mess to clean up. Partyers just want to keep on partying. Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to do this. Resource shortages are going to increase both in the near and far future. There’s simply no way to avoid it. So what to do? Archdruid John Michael Greer suggested in a posting several years ago to ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’.

The idea behind this is to start voluntarily reducing our energy consumption along with our incessant demand for more and more ‘things’ and begin living in a manner more in keeping with the low energy outputs, and diminished resources that we are going to have to accept as the norm in the future, preferably before circumstances force us to make the change. Yes, it means a slower pace to life and a simpler one. No, it does not mean we are going back to living in caves. The web site Low Tech Magazine frequently publishes articles highlighting a surprising variety of ways to accomplish tasks using simpler more sustainable (and maintainable) technologies. The ingenuity behind these low tech solutions is surprising and heartening.

Compare this with Northern Pass’s heavy-handed corporate politicking and Brobdingnagian technology being touted as the latest and greatest solution to our energy woes. In all likelihood, even if it gets approved, there will still be a fierce fight in store for Eversource attempting to get it built. People are growing more skeptical but what it will take to make us to come to our senses and reject these types of outmoded energy ‘solutions’ is anyone’s guess. As Winston Churchill is said to have remarked; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

March and Maple Syrup

Most of us are familiar with the old weather proverb saying ‘March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’. It’s one of those adages of uncertain lineage we like to trot out more as a way to comment about the weather rather than from any real belief in its accuracy. Certainly this March has started out living up to the saying. The past few days have yo-yoed from a balmy fifty degrees down into the single digits with a ferocious wind adding to the chill. Since technically it’s still winter, this shouldn’t be all that surprising but after being teased by pseudo-spring like conditions, it does come as a shock.

Still, the days are getting noticeably longer. The snow pack in the back yard which shortly after Valentine’s Day was over two feet deep has now shriveled down to a meager few inches. Bird activity has picked up with crows calling incessantly back and forth and tufted titmice whistling as they begin preparing to establish nesting territories. Chickadees along with nuthatches can be heard twittering as they climb up and down tree branches searching for hibernating insects. There is also that activity most often associated with New England, maple sugaring.

Maple syrup has a long history in New England, with the heaviest production coming from Vermont. Native Americans originally tapped the maple as it provided a source of energy and trace minerals in the late winter when other sources of food were in short supply. The sweet flavor helped add to the appeal of harvesting it. Traditional stories suggest that they were just as vulnerable to the temptation of overdoing it as we are today, as one of the Abenaki legends of Gluskabe relates.

Early European settlers quickly adopted the practice of tapping maple trees, gradually refining the technique of boiling down the tree sap to produce syrup. Cane sugar replaced maple sugar as the main sweetener around the time of the Civil War, but that didn’t stop efforts to boost maple syrup production and improve marketing. The technology has remained basically the same since then with minor tweaks and improvements. A farmer of the late 1800’s would have no difficulty recognizing many of the tapping techniques still in use today.

The production of maple syrup, however, has gotten dicier in recent years due to global warming. Maple trees need a combination of mild days in the upper thirties and low forties followed by cold nights below freezing to promote a good flow of sap for producers to tap. Too warm and the sap shoots to the top of the tree instead of rising slowly and dripping gradually into the sap buckets. This leads to poor quality maple syrup. Producers are struggling to adapt to the new normal, which given the current wild gyrations of the climate, is nearly impossible to determine. Given the recent struggles of maple sugarers, it’s fair to ask if there are other trees that could be tapped in a similar fashion. Well, it turns out there are.

The birch tree is often mentioned as an alternative to sugar maples. The flavor (which I haven’t tried) is different from maple syrup. Birch syrup contains only 1 to 2 percent sugar as compared to 8 percent for maple. It has been described as spicy-sweet by some and other as caramel-like with a fruity undertone. Because of its lower sugar content, it takes more birch sap to boil down to syrup, usually about a hundred gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup as opposed to 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup. So don’t expect to see mass quantities of this on the grocery shelf anytime soon. You can purchase birch syrup online, though it can be a bit pricey.

Another tree to look at is the sycamore. It can be tapped much the same way as the birch and maple. The flavor is described as honey like early in the season and developing a butterscotch flavor later on. I haven’t found any online sources to purchase this product if you are curious about it. Unfortunately New Hampshire (the southern part of it) is just at the edge of the northern range for sycamores, so I don’t anticipate this becoming a replacement for our beloved sugar maples any time soon.

Other trees that have potential for tapping are walnuts, ironwood, box elder (actually a member of the maple family) and hickory. If you have any of these types of trees on your property, feel free to experiment. Just be aware that each will likely have its own unique flavor which may or may not appeal to you. Also, and this is extremely important, be certain you are correctly identifying the tree in question. While I am not aware of any tree sap that is out and out poisonous, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one and it’s best to avoid unwelcome surprises. So educate yourself on what type of trees you have in your area. Once you’ve accomplished that, there are plenty of books and online sources detailing the process of tapping which can be quite laborious but ultimately rewarding.

Happy sugaring!

A little postscript:
I am pleased to announce that I have sold one of my short stories, A Change In The Wind, to Into The Ruins, a quarterly magazine published by Joel Caris. Thank you, Mr Caris!

The Trouble With Memory

Recently I was loading groceries into my car when a couple drove up and asked where they could find the Middle School. Perhaps because I was slightly distracted by my ambition to get my stuff home and tucked away, I cheerfully gave them directions to the local elementary school. It wasn’t until I drove up a hill near my home and spotted the local junior high that the little light bulb over my head finally flickered on. Oh, yes, junior high – middle school (derp!).

It was embarrassing enough that I had steered that poor couple wrong, but the incident also set off a chain of thought that people around my age (62 years) start obsessing about. Is this the early signs of Alzheimer’s? Probably not, but it’s hard not to have that worry pop up from time to time when minor faux pas like the above occur.

But how worried should we really be when memory failures happen? When you are young, memory failures happen but it’s easy to brush them off. Not so much as you begin aging or watch your parents age and witness the devastating effects of memory loss. My father played the piano and could perform a number of pieces pretty much from memory. However as he got past his seventies and into his eighties, an ominous change came over his playing. He would start off but then begin faltering. After hesitating, he would start the piece over again, sometimes several times in succession. Finally he quit playing altogether. Even with sheet music in front of him, he kept losing track of where he was.

True dementia involves significant deficits which interfere with your ability to function at work or at home. Not all dementias are Alzheimers. There are a variety of conditions which produce similar symptoms. Some are treatable. Others are not. Reading these lists can often be alarming but a simple rule of thumb to remember is this: if you forget where you laid your car keys, that’s plain absentmindedness. But if you have your car keys in hand and can’t remember what they are for, then you definitely have a problem.

In my father’s case, short term memory had taken a hit. Whether this was Alzheimers (he was never diagnosed) or the result of a series of small strokes, is hard to say but the terrible effects on his ability to recall musical pieces or follow sheet music like he used to, clearly showed. In my own case, failing to recall that ‘middle school’ meant the junior high, is more likely due to distraction than to cognitive decline.

So what to do? The Internet is filled with sites advising how to improve your memory and maintain it well into old age. Some of it is obvious snake oil but some sites offer common sense advice that most of us know but don’t always put into practice.

There are several things that stick out. The first is to stop multitasking. Let’s face it. We can’t give 100 percent of our attention to five things at the same time. If you want to do a task well or just keep track of things better, you have to cut back and focus your attention on one or two tasks at a time. You can devote more time to the tasks, do them better and not trip yourself up trying to keep track of too many things.

Another is simply getting enough sleep. It’s easy to underestimate how badly our mental functioning is affected when we don’t get enough sleep. Our ability to focus on tasks, think clearly and most important consolidate memories of events during the day take a major hit when we don’t get enough sleep.

A lot of things conspire to interfere with getting a restful sleep. Certain types of food and drink can interfere with a good night’s rest. Also exercising vigorously before bedtime can cause issues, revving our bodies up for more activity instead of winding down for the night. Bright light can interfere with the body’s sleep rhythms. The introduction of electric lights and later TV and computer screens have disturbed our natural sleep cycle which depends on a regular pattern of light followed by darkness. Outside lights such as street lights, neon lights, or even the headlights of cars passing by can all have a disruptive effect on our sleep.

Last but definitely not least is the importance of social contacts. Having friends, attending social functions (either family related or otherwise). Volunteering for community service or helping out with church or other functions all provide opportunities for interactions both social and physical. Scientists aren’t yet sure of the dynamics behind social interactions and how they reduce cognitive decline but there is clearly a correlation. Interacting with others requires using your brain for social skills. Exercise promotes better circulation for the brain. Volunteering creates a sense of purpose and feeling of achievement that your efforts can actually make a difference for others. Each feeds into the other and helps contribute to a healthier old age. Like a muscle, the brain just needs to be frequently exercised to stay in good shape. Use it or lose it!

So don’t fret about forgetting where the car keys are. Just be happy you can remember what they’re for!

Clearing The Clutter

Now that the New Year has arrived, I like to do an inventory of all the stuff I have. Like many others I have accumulated a considerable stack of possessions over the years, in addition to the stuff my late parents left behind after they passed away. As they both lived through the Great Depression, it left them with a pack rat mentality, an urge to accumulate stuff as a hedge against the next set of hard times. As the ‘hard times’ never quite materialized for them, I wound up with quite a pile of, well, stuff.

Some of it was easy to get rid of. The bookshelf crammed with Readers Digest Condensed Books (my father’s) got shuffled off to the local recycling station, especially after I found out you can’t give those things away. Clothing that was purchased by both parents and stored away but never worn, went to the local church rummage sale (if it didn’t fit me, that is…).

My father was the worst offender when it came to saving anything. Glass jar after glass jar of old nails, screws, bolts, nuts, brackets and assorted bric-a-brac cluttered his work shop. A fair percentage of it had been sitting around so long it had begun corroding. Fortunately our recycling station can handle scrap metal, so that all went there as well. He saved every piece of scrap wood from old projects with the idea it could be applied to a future project. He was also a ham radio buff and saved any old tubes and attachments that might conceivably be useful.


These I know can be sold to avid collectors, so if I can ever get ambitious enough for that yard sale I’ve always wanted to do, they will be placed out, hopefully to be scooped up and out of my clutter pile and into someone else’s. The scrap wood was, needless to say, scrapped.

My mother also collected quite a pile, but her stuff was more useful to me. The old cast iron skillets she had were definitely keepers along with her stock pot, dishes and cutlery. Some of her old vintage jewelry I have kept as well. She avidly collected glass ware from antique shops, gift shops and local yard sales. Some of it I will keep for sentimental value but the rest of it will end up in the yard sale. She knitted quite a bit until arthritis stopped her. I have numerous yarn skeins as well as a few half-finished items (a sweater and afghan, I believe). If I ever take up knitting, that will go into my own stash of stuff.

This of course brings me to what I have collected. Needless to say, I have been strongly influenced by my parents. While I hadn’t been born until long after the Great Depression, the attitudes it fostered in them were transmitted to me. I’m not a string saver but I do love to read, so I have a ton of books. I was into collecting pewter fantasy figurines for a while, so I have several shelves full of those. I enjoy cross stitch and can’t resist the kits that various catalogs offer to me. I suspect I have enough projects accumulated that if I stopped buying anything right now, I will be kept busy until the day I die. Word puzzles, like acrostics and the like are enjoyable so I have a stack of puzzle magazines waiting for me to have time to go through them.

If that wasn’t enough, I like to draw and so have stacks of art books, art supplies and so forth. One thing for sure, I will never be bored! However, I think George Carlin pretty much said it all with his classic monologue on ‘stuff’. Our consumer culture with its emphasis on material wealth has caused us to go way over the top on accumulating stuff, even when we’re not really that greedy (or like to think we aren’t.)

So how to cut down on the clutter? Well, the Internet is full of suggestions on the best ways to clear out your excess possessions. Many advocate using the beginning of the year to start de-cluttering. Other recommend a specific date. MoneyMagpie suggests March 11, 2017 as the date. Apparently there is actually a National Clear Your Clutter Day. I’m not exactly sure who designated March as THE month to clean but it’s as good as any.

Getting rid of clothing that no longer fits or is out of style is easy enough. I deal with the monster stash of books by rereading old ones that I haven’t looked at in quite a while. I have found that my reading tastes have changed over the years which allows me to get rid of the books that no longer interest me. Duplicate books are rare but I do occasionally inadvertently buy one. Those go too of course. Recently a co-worker was hospitalized and sidelined for an extended period. A ‘Care Package’ basket was made up for him. I donated a years’ worth of the word puzzle magazines that I never seem to have time to get around to. If the yard sale ever comes off, I will get rid of a few of the knick-knacks I have accumulated as well.

In spite of our computerized culture, there is still a huge amount of paper documents that manage to accumulate in spite of our best efforts. Many of these are important but it isn’t always clear how long they should be kept. I came across a magazine article that helpfully listed what to keep and how long to keep it. As I prefer to do as little on line as possible, it has come in very useful.

1: Keep Forever
Birth and death certificates, adoption papers, health records, marriage certificates, divorce decrees and military discharge papers.

2: Keep for a limited time
Tax records – 7 years; Auto titles and registrations – as long as you own the car; Check registers and bank statements – 7 years; Loan papers – 7 years after the loan is paid off; Pay stubs – until W2 is confirmed by year end; Property deeds – as long as you own the property; Mortgage payments – 7 years after property is sold; Records to support tax return – 7 years.

3: Toss Immediately
Utility bills (once you’ve paid them of course)– unless used for tax deductions; Credit Card statements – unless they record deductible business expenses; Expired insurance policies – unless there is an outstanding claim; Warranties, manuals and receipts for items you no longer own.

Once you get started on this process, it’s rather overwhelming to see the amount of clutter you have but what a relief to get it out from underfoot. And what a surprise to discover how roomy your house or apartment really is!

Happy cleaning and Happy New Year!