Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Magic of Travel

 

Saint Mark's National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

There is truly a magic in leaving the familiarities of home and wandering. As soon as I take flight - whether by car or foot or very rarely by plane - I feel a levity, a levity that is so very challenging for me to find when rooted in place. Now don't get me wrong, there is a lot to be said for rootedness - roots go deep into layers of earth, of knowing, and are intertwined with all other things in that place.  I don't think I could travel without them. I need a certain constancy to even yearn for the unknown. As we continue to build our homestead here in Pennsylvania, there will be writing about roots. But now, oh the freedom of movement! I am truly in love with it.

Our camp in the prairie

The very smell of our travel trailer puts me in the zone, clears my mind, and pulls me into the moment. And so, when we spent our first night in Virginia, at a lovely little campground called Walnut Hills in the Shenandoah Valley, I found myself giddy. So did Scott. Giddy despite our weariness and the fact that we'd been preparing for this trip for days. The day before we'd stumbled through a foot of snow while lugging essentials from our home and backpacking gear from the shed across the property to the driveway where the trailer sat, dug through a three-foot deep snowbank to find the hitch that we'd left on the ground after last spring's excursion, and then with a hammer, chipped away at a truck bed full of ice to locate the pin that holds it in place. Then we'd awoke and driven seven hours to arrive here in the dark, only to park the trailer in yet more snow, but none of that mattered. We'd seen the landscape with eyes and hearts wide open and had only more days spent alive and awake to look forward to. 

In Asheville, NC with dear friends on the Fonta Flora Trail - in remembrance of the African Americans who lost their lives building the railroad that travels through the Swannanoa Tunnel

Dinner at Rachel and Steve's in Sandy Mush with the fam

Our first stop was Asheville, where we spent a solid week visiting with friends while parked comfortably in our dear friend, Rachel's driveway. Every morning we had new visitors drop by our barn-style door. Every day we played and laughed and sang and broke bread. We had been blessed to have a number of these sweet souls - an extension of our family - visit us up north, but due to covid precautions, it had been two full years since I'd been in this, my second home. No matter the distance, nor time that passes, when back in those mountains, this community of ours makes it feel like no time has passed at all. It was tough to leave that cozy driveway, but warmer weather and our Florida Trail family beckoned.

Scott with Ray Charles in Greenville, Florida

We headed south, landing at a Hipcamp in Greenville, Florida. Greenville is in the panhandle, near to Madison and Lee, two towns through which the Florida Trail passes and where we'd even considered purchasing property. Under the arching limbs of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, we drove into its rural outskirts that night and as we whizzed by, exclaimed at the sound of peepers. Even by the darkness of night, we were enchanted. After a beverage, we were already researching Greenville on Zillow and came upon a charming home built in the 1920's in historic downtown with a price that was a steal. The next day we dipped into town to take a look. There is little to be found in Greenville: several churches (many of them in cement box buildings - one proclaimed a Prophetess), a diner, a well-kept park, and train that seems to roll through on the regular. But it was in that park that we stumbled upon this humble town's remarkable claim to fame: Ray Charles. Greenville was his homeplace. This was quite the prize for my own blues man, and although the historic home wasn't quite for us, Greenville has now made it onto the list of potential seasonal homesites.

Wild oranges growing on the Florida Trail - we actually found some sweet(er) ones this time!

Then it was a straight shot south, takin' a big ol' bite of what we consider the fruit Florida - its prairies and swamps - and at its core, all those folks we hold dear in this state. First stop was the Florida Trail in Okeechobee County. We set up camp beneath a majestic live oak thick with Spanish moss, resurrection fern, and wild pine and took to walking. With every scratchy cabbage palm and sandy stretch, I was in heaven. SO MANY PLANTS to admire, plants with which I now shared relationship. A subtle knowledge that surprised me. Perhaps we are no longer alien in this landscape. 

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) - with ripe edible berries that were lightly sweet with a hint of spice

Sundew (Drosera) - so many of these hidden along the sandy trail near the pond just north of Starvation Slough campsite. Sundews are carnivorous, each one of those paddles covered in tentacles that secrete a sticky fluid rich in digestive enzymes to consume passing prey. 

Resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) - aptly named given that it desiccates during dry weather and "comes back to life" in presence of moisture. 

Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) - although a member of the coffee family, it is of a different genus (Coffee is genus Coffea) and contains no caffeine. Although, its berries do resemble those of true coffee, they should not be used as coffee substitute as they can reportedly induce severe headaches.

But still, we didn't know how good we had it. We made the foolish move of leaving our little slice of heaven, just as the first real waves of relaxation were hitting us, and headed south to Everglades National Park. Honestly, the most memorable part of this whole experience was the drive - the air was thick with smog and the smell of hot pavement and exhaust - as we passed along the western edge of the state through such allegedly prestigious places as West Palm. However, meeting tropical milkweed redeemed the trip. Amos agreed, it wasn't worth the hassle of parking on the edge of the city and paying a hefty fee to enter a non-dog friendly park. We scurried back to the prairie quick as we could and were happy for it when we returned.

Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) - beautiful as this plant is, I have recently learned that tropical milkweed is non-native and plays host to a parasite that is detrimental to the growth and migration success of monarchs. Native milkweeds can also host this parasite (that are carried by the monarchs themselves) but when the plants die back in winter, the parasites die back with them. Tropical milkweed can remain in bloom throughout the winter - like this one here - building up successive generations of the parasite, which is how the danger creeps in. A sad story that a plant so beautiful could be so harmful.

Amos reveling in returning to the prairie

More days in the prairie followed - we'd learned our lesson. When you got a good thing, soak it up. We were present without effort. Our conversations organically shifted from the work to be done at home to whether that was a live oak or a sand live oak and what snacks were best to have on hand for the thru-hikers we were beginning to encounter. Our minds were free of the checklists and rumination. We slept like babies, even Amos when the coyotes yipped and howled out in the prairie grasses. We were refreshed. It was time then to visit friends we had not seen since our road trip two years ago that was cut short by the pandemic.

With Joan Jarvis - the fairy godmother of the trail - active with the Florida Trail on so many levels and a trail angel to many!

With Sandra Friend and John Keatley of Florida Trail Hikers Alliance, authors of The Florida Trail Guide, and experts in all things Florida! We wouldn't have made it down the trail without their expertise!

With Randy and Luanne Anderson, aka Chuck and Tigger of the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance - they're always on the look-out to lend a hand to the hikers!

What light these friends of ours brought to our journey. Were it not for these folks, we wouldn't have had the experience that we did in 2019 on the Florida Trail - one of community and enthusiastic support - and perhaps our hike wouldn't have been the success that it was. If so, would we still have the affection that we do for this landscape and be making, what's turning into, an annual pilgrimage down to Florida? Likely not. And had we not hiked the Florida Trail, we never would have had the opportunity to get to know these sweet souls. Those who don't long-distance hike, sometimes think that thru-hiking is escapism, but really its quite the opposite. Long-distance hiking is all about connection.

Shired Island

Continuing northward, Scott suggested we check out a beach he'd seen on the map: Shired Island. There was little to be found online about it, but what we did know was that it was part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and that there was a first-come/first-serve campground there with twelve RV sites. We decided to take our chances. What we found - after driving through long stretches of delightfully old Florida - was a li'l strip of land once inhabited by indigenous peoples who had piled its shore with oyster shells. Driftwood worn smooth by ocean water lay scattered on a beach lined with palms and cedar. Sites were still available and they sat yards from the gulf. As I said, we'd learned our lesson. We knew we had it good - so we stayed a few days. And I caught up with old plant friends and became better acquainted with new plant friends as well.

Sea Purslane (Sevuvium portulacastrum) - this purslane is not lemony but salty. A tasty trailside nibble and related to our purslane in the northeast!

 
Christmas Berry (Lycium carolinanum) - this seaside berry is related to goji berries and reportedly edible, however it is a member of the nightshade family and identification is key! The edibility of some other species is unknown, and one species is known to be toxic (Green Deane - Eat the Weeds). I decided to wait until I got to know this genus a li'l better before consuming.


Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) - our one North American caffeine containing plant. This is a member of the holly family, as indicated by those perfectly round red berries and evergreen leaves. However, unlike coffee berries, it is the leaves that we can cook up to make a perky beverage. Simply steep the fresh leaves in hot water, or roast in an oven and steep for a richer tasting tea.

Continuing along the gulf, we made our way to the charming fishing village of Saint Mark's and the nearby Saint Mark's National Wildlife Refuge. This is by far Scott's favorite place along the Florida Trail, and one of mine too. Here we walked long dikes, admiring the sunbathing gators, the glistening marsh waters, squat cabbage palms, and much to our thrill- a lone flamingo. Town was just as charming as we recalled it and we found that a piece of property we had been eyeing here the last two times we passed through is now up for sale. Of course, we are considering it.

Scott on the Florida Trail at Saint Mark's National Wildlife Refuge

So many gators sunbathing along this stretch of trail and throughout the refuge

The lone flamingo - it is said that he/she arrived after Hurricane Michael and has returned to this spot ever since. To see a flamingo is a rare sight, given that there are believed to be only 400 wild flamingos in Florida, but to find one this far north, is even more unlikely. We had been tipped off by Vera Hurst to keep an eye out for it! 

Onto Apalachicola National Forest we journeyed to revisit some of our favorite portions of the Florida Trail. We spent a good chunk of time along the Sopchoppy River, where the trail winds along sweet tea-colored waters punctuated by cypress knees and humps of white sand. Overhead long leaf and slash pine towered, and we walked beneath arbors of craggy sand live oaks adorned in Spanish moss and old man's beard. It was also while in Apalachicola that we crossed paths with the most thru-hikers. We had hoped to lend some trail magic to this year's crew and so were well-stocked with ice cold gatorades and sodas and oranges from Robert is Here fruit stand down in the Everglades. Every morning and evening, at Oak Hill Trailhead, where we'd parked our trailer, we had regular passerby. Amos came to lay at the end of his line, peering down the road in anticipation - who might hike up next! And when they didn't come to us, we went to them, even hiking several pizzas out to a group of six one evening at Porter's Tract campsite. Apalachicola National Forest is a dreamy location to spend so many days - we were but a tiny speck in over 500,000 acres of wilderness - but a long stretch for a thru-hiker without resupply. By our end of our time here, we too felt as if we had slipped into the thru-hiker state of mind.

The Sopchoppy River as seen from the Florida Trail

The Florida Trail weaving through pine forest and saw palmetto in Apalachicola National Forest

Amos walking boardwalk on Florida Trail near Camel Lake.

Old man's beard (Usnea) - this lichen is one that all backpackers should know well. It acts like a backcountry anti-biotic, effective against viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. Make it into a tea, tincture or poultice to fight infection. Just be mindful in harvesting. . .lichen grows very slowly and you won't find old man's beard just anywhere.

Amos waiting for the morning's hikers at Oak Hill Trailhead in Apalachicola National Forest


Hanging with Gravy, who is hiking the Eastern Continental Trail (which includes the Florida Trail) - super nice fella with an immense appreciation for life!

No trip to the panhandle is complete without a visit to Hillcrest Baptist Church in Altha, Florida. We fondly remembered staying here during our thru-hike and getting to know Wilton Quattlebaum, the man responsible for its generosity towards hikers. Upon our return, we found Wilton hosting two hikers in his Wilton Hilton - an upscale outbuilding complete with air conditioning, real beds and linens, and a stocked fridge (to name just a few amenities) - and he had more hikers coming the next day. Wilton was just as big hearted and sweet as we remembered and we had a wonderful time joining in fellowship and song with Pastor Forrest Parker and his wife Becky, guitarist Robert Wilks, and Wilton's daughter Turtle. Guess what Turtle wants to do when she finishes high school. . . hike. Our hearts soared that night, again reminded that this is why we hike, to meet folks like Wilton along the way.

With Robert Wilks (left) and Wilton Quattlebaum (middle) - pastor of the Hillcrest Baptist Church and founder of its hiker hostel.

The Wilton Hilton - this is the main sleeping quarters and living area. Just behind this building sits another shed outfitted with a washer/dry, a couple more beds, a kitchen area and bathroom with shower. 

It was just as hard to leave Wilton's as it was the first time, but carry on we had to, for every journey eventually reaches its end. February was almost to a close and so we headed east and then north. We made a short stopover in Osceola National Forest, an underappreciated public land, through which the Florida Trail passes for18 miles. We hiked the driest portion of trail we could recall here - this stretch is known for wet feet - and breathed deep the smell of pine pollen, sphagnum moss, and yellow jessamine. A lone gopher tortoise graced us with his passage and we camped beside a gum swamp that night, soaking up the song of the peepers.

Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) - a native flowering vine with flowers so fragrant you can catch their sweet scent on the breeze.

A gopher tortoise in Osceola National Forest. These tortoises are invaluable to the ecosystem. Their burrows provide shelter for over 350 species, such as snakes, frogs, and even burrowing owls.  It is also suspected that tortoise burrows can promote seed germination and in turn support plant diversity.

In Wilmington, North Carolina we were welcomed with open arms. Scott's mother has relocated there from Sarasota, Florida, and his two brothers are also in the process of moving there from New Jersey. Add in Uncle Jim - whom y'all may remember picked us up from Big Cypress Swamp on our thru-hike - and it was a lovely two days of catching up, storytelling, and lots of good laughter.  

With Mama Weis and Uncle Jim

And just like that, exactly one month later, we found ourselves back in Walnut Hills Campground in the Shenandoah Mountains. Amos happily found his spot beneath the weeping willow that he remembered and took a quick dip in the creek that had been far too cold the last time we were here. He pranced around with a confidence that it sometimes took days in one place for us to see in Florida. Virginia or not, I think he knew that this grass, these trees, this air smelled like home. For us, it was bittersweet. We were nearly home. We didn't want it to end. Already I missed the smell of wet sand and sulfur and damp moss and pine needles and fire, the sight of crooked tree limbs and fat-bottom trunks.

Amos under his willow at Walnut Hills Campground

 Now home, we are settling back into the familiar sight of snow-dressed white pines and the tall, straight trunks of white and red oaks with limbs reaching skyward. The temps are chilly, but our days are longer, and somehow, even amidst our white landscape we can feel the promise of spring in the air. We'll be working on strengthening our roots, so that when the opportunity arises yet again to spread our branches and leaf out, we'll be ready. Until then, we'll weave that magic, that levity of spirit into our days, making each one a little brighter. When the time is right, they'll be more magic awaiting us in lands far away.

The Florida Trail in Okeechobee County, meandering through an oak hammock

A big thank you to all who made our journey so special. It is a joy to know that we have friends stretched across the landscape, so that wherever we may go, we feel connected. And a giant CONGRATS to all you hikers out there finishing up the trail. It was a pleasure to cross paths with you! Keep on trekkin'.     

Bot and Wise Man - thank y'all for the amazing journey and thank you to land for the beauty and sustenance it provides!


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Road Trippin'

 

 A boardwalk across Duck Slough on the Florida Trail in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve

Oh goodness, are we looking forward to being amidst spikey air plants and fan-like palm fronds, where Spanish moss tickles your head and live oak leaves crunch underfoot, where creeks are called sloughs and rivers are black, and tangerines gone wild dangle from tree limbs. That's right, good 'ol Florida. It's been too long. In fact, it has been a solid two years since we last visited. Covid concerns stymied any hopes of our escaping the Northeastern winter last year. And covid is still here, looks like it may be for good. Therefore, we may as well carry on (with cautionary measures of course). 

I will be honest; we don't have much of a plan. I am a planner, but Scott, well, he's not. Toss his influence into a whole sack of unknowns - when the next snowstorm is, where the temps will be warm enough to comfortably backpack but not too hot to blanket the trail in ticks, the very real possibility that one of us could fall ill - and I'm all ready to roll with the punches. At least that's my goal and what will happen whether I like it or not. And you know what I've learned, too, over the years of hiking? That sometimes plans can get in the way of the good stuff, the spontaneous, the unexpected that can be so much more fulfilling than what you had planned in the first place. But despite this lack of plans - we've got a li'l framework of what we'd like to do.

Scott in Big Cypress Preserve on the Florida Trail

For the month of February, we're taking the pop-up and our coonhound, Amos and headin' south - that much is for certain - and hope to go deep south, like as far south as one can go in mainland Florida. There's a campground near Flamingo, FL - kind of perfect for us considering our homestead has long been called Flamingo Estates - in the Everglades National Park. And there is no way we are passing up the Florida Trail through Big Cypress Preserve. Now, it is highly doubtful that I will get Scott out on the watery trail, when there's no required thru-hiking miles, but we both agreed it would be mighty cool to explore its drier portions again and also the portion of the trail that is south of Alligator Alley, that used to serve as the Florida Trail's first miles. 

Meeting our first skunk ape at Skunk Ape Headquarters

And you can't hike through Big Cypress without stopping in at Skunk Ape Headquarters. Visit this place for a schoolin' in all things skunk ape. Hey, we may even stay the night - there is a campground there that the Florida Trail uses for its annual Kick-Off gathering every year that is said to be quite nice. We'll just make sure to keep some lima beans nearby - allegedly those appease a hungry skunk ape, well, that and deer liver, which I refuse to keep handy. I have never explored the National Park, nor traveled southward beyond Big Cypress, so there will be much to discover. Somehow, too, traveling 1,300 miles from home, seems certain to guarantee an adventure of some sort.

At the start of the Blackwater Trail during our thru-hike on the Florida Trail (2019)

Meanwhile at the other end of the state, in the Panhandle, we hope to also hike the Blackwater section of the Florida Trail. This is a forty-six-mile official Florida Trail side trail that connects the Florida Trail to the Alabama Hiking Trail, and if my memory serves me right, used to be the Florida Trail's official northern terminus. In hiking this trail, I will be that much closer to completing the entire Eastern Continental Trail. But that's not our real motivation. More importantly, we want to spend a few days unmoored from civilization, hiking with Amos, sleeping beneath the stars, with nothing more than the packs on our backs and sticks in hand. So, if anyone is reading this who may be able to help with a shuttle from one end to the other or a place to park our truck and pop-up for a few days, please reach out!

Trail magic with Sandra Friend and John Keatley

In between these two points we look forward to reconnecting with our Florida Trail community. Sadly, we had to miss Billy Goat Day this year, but we look forward to seeing each and every one of you we can while traversing the state. Y'all were what made our thru-hike not only meaningful, but successful and we're looking forward to swapping trail stories again. Also, I should mention that I am hard at work on writing my next book (HINT HINT) and it's mighty important I gather some solid information from y'all. If we haven't reached out to you already, please reach out to us! We want to see you! Also, we are hoping we'll cross paths with some of this year's hikers to offer some trail magic. Whenever possible, we'll be cruising the route of the trail, in hopes of spotting one!

Noah, Alex, Addy, and us hanging on Black Balsam (photo by Jodi)
 
Farther north, we are elated to be spending a solid week in Asheville, North Carolina with our dear people and beautiful blue mountains. Typically, we make a pilgrimage to Asheville once, if not twice a year, however due to covid, it has been two long years since we returned. The last time we were in Asheville, our friend, Rachel was getting married (a big 'ol barn gathering of 150 people plus) and honeymooning in Peru - all was still "normal" - now accomplishing these two events would be more significant than ever. Now, she's got a li'l boy and other friends, Jodi and Noah's baby girl is walking and talking and making trouble. Friends have bought houses and gotten masters degrees. I mean, wow. There's a lot to catch up on, a lot of singing and dancing, shooting the shit, and exploring the hollers and mountaintops. We can't wait to see y'all and be in our home away from home.

Yellow butterwort (Pinguicula lutea)

And of course, thread throughout all these shenanigans is a whole lot of quality time with the plants. Here in the north, where I currently type, the snow is blowing sideways, adding to the half a foot that's been on the ground for the last few weeks. This year has been a real winter with below zero temps and regular white stuff (plus icy stuff) falling from the sky. The green growing beings seem so far from view, lying dormant in a cold deep sleep. I need a glimpse of what's to come and, like the flowers, to feel the sunshine on my face and the cool dirt between my toes. Plus, I have some brushing up to do, given the new writing project.

So, that's it for now. In a bit, I will go push the snow off the top of the pop-up, in the hopes that in a few days, the temps will rise above freezing just enough to melt the ice so we may actually pop it open. Until we see you, sweet land of the south, we'll be dreaming warm sunshiny dreams. Looking forward to seeing y'all! Keep on the look-out for rolling Flamingo Estates!

Scott, myself, and Amos outside the pop-up at a favorite campsite in the Florida prairie





Saturday, October 23, 2021

Bittersweet Abundance

 

Cattails (Typha latifolia) gone to seed 

Autumn is mixed bag. I always struggle with letting go of the green, growing season, when the meadows are lush with wildflowers, the woodland trails are a tunnel of leafy foliage, and although I may need to dab on insect repellant, I need never pull on long sleeves. Spring is full of hope and when we slide into summer, it seems omnipresent, as if snow had never fallen on this landscape. Come autumn, I'm smacked with the reality that in order for all this life to carry on it must, for a period of time, go dormant. It is a time of gratitude and mourning alike. It's no wonder that it is during this time that we celebrate Halloween or as the pagans call it, Samhain, a time of death yet a marker of new life to come. 

Trail in Bruce Lake Natural Area in Delaware State Forest

Mother Nature eases the transition with a show of colors so beautiful, that I wish I could encapsulate them in a diorama that I might step into when in the depths of winter do come. And I am reminded that all the green life I have been frolicking through the last so many months served a purpose - to produce.

Chinese chestnuts (Castenea mollisima) in spikey hull 

Nuts rain down from the treetops with a gust of wind - the spikey hulls of chestnut and the smooth-skinned hickory alike, and beneath my tires shatter the hard encasements of black walnuts. Mushrooms blossom from earth - hen of the woods in her bounty and black trumpets arising from beneath the gathering leaf litter. Fruits ripen - spicebush berries speckle the woods in red, autumn olive boughs droop with speckled juicy goodness, and apples swell. 

The abundance of autumn - cultivated apples (Malus) gone wild, hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), Chinese chestnuts (Castenea mollisima), and paw paws (Asimina triloba)

I do my best to gather, to take in this sustenance for which I am so thankful. But the offerings are so abundant that it is impossible to gather up all the bounty and so I let it roll underfoot, wither back into the earth, and bury its seed and spores in the soil for next year's growth. Mother Nature persistently reminds me that each and every day is to be appreciated, her bounty a gift, and so I have been busy making good with her offerings.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a shrubby tree that relishes damp soil and the shade of a forest canopy. It seems I always meet spicebush while trail running. I'll be zipping through the forest, my coonhound Amos in the lead, and suddenly spicebush's smooth-edged leaves will call out to me. I'll no sooner taken note, when its red berries will come into focus, speckling the leaves of only a periodic shrub (only female shrubs produce fruit). Still I'll think to run on, but I know my tunnel of spicebush won't persist once I climb out of the damp low woods. I halt in my progress, as does Amos rather reluctantly, and double back to a plentiful shrub, crush a leaf, breathing deep its lemony-spicy fragrance and crack a fruit between my teeth. Plucking several palmfuls, I deposit them in my pocket and hope that they don't bounce out as I dash on down the trail. 

Spicebush berries - immature and mature - diced

Wild apples tossed with spicebush syrup (a decoction of twigs blended with sugar), crushed spicebush berries, and whole partridgeberries (Mitchella repens)

Wild apple spicebush muffins (spicebush berries finally diced and added to muffin batter)

Spicebush berries pair beautifully with apples, especially those cultivated apples gone wild that you might stumble upon. Of course, wild apples require a taste-test, as some will be astringent, fibrous, or sour, but it's not a bad task, and goodness, when you find a tasty tree! I guarantee those apples will taste better than any you purchase at the grocery. These apples were harvested from a tree on our property that we never noticed produced years past. However, strangely enough, just as our oldest apple tree stopped producing, this one has taken up the task, producing more apples than our resident horse can even eat. Lucky gal, that tree stands in her pasture.

Paw paws ripened (Asimina triloba

Paw paw torn open to reveal ripe inner flesh

Now these were a serious gift! Paw paws, Asimina triloba, North America's largest native edible fruit. Yes, these do grow in our region, but they are not easy to spot given their green foliage, green fruits, and the fact that they grow in the understory of our green woods. But they are out there. These were harvested by Uncle Jim from his wild acreage in Tewksbury, New Jersey. He is no stranger to his forests, managing and appreciating them for the last several decades, and never before had he found these fruits that now littered a patch of his woods and dangled from branches. He knew we would appreciate them. Paw paws taste tropical, reminiscent of bananas and mangos, and are in fact related to papaya. However, once ripe - tender like a ripe avocado - they don't last long and I sure wasn't going to let them go to waste. So into muffins they went. 

Paw paw chestnut muffins 

A simple google search yielded a stellar recipe: Appalachian Pawpaw Muffins – Palatable Pastime Palatable Pastime. However, from what I could gather, any banana muffin recipe would also suffice, simply substituting the paw paw for the banana. It is important to note that paw paw skins, seeds, and under ripe fruit are toxic and can cause some serious gastric upset. So, use caution to scoop the soft custard-like flesh from the skin and separate the large black seeds (roughly 4-6 seeds in each fruit). And by all means plant those lil' gems. Just today, I sunk them into the earth in a patch of pine-oak forest on our property. Scott and I are crossing our fingers for saplings next year and, in five to eight years, edible fruits!

Roasted Chinese chestnuts (Castenea mollisima)

Chinese chestnuts, roasted and ground, made a nice addition to the paw paw recipe. These, too, grow near to the horse pasture, having been planted there many years ago. However, Cracker has no interest in these morsels. The trick is to harvest them as soon as the hulls split open. If you've got low-hanging branches or a good step stool, give the branches a gentle shake to release the nuts and then get to gathering. However, I would still don tough gloves and close-toed shoes - those hulls are sharp! Once you've brought your bounty home, be sure to roast them up in about a week's time. Anymore than that and the weevil larvae (inherent in most chestnuts) will have matured and no boiling or roasting is going to kill those suckers - trust me, I've learned the hard way. Reportedly they too are edible, although I haven't the stomach to go there. To separate the good nuts from the bad, immerse them in a bowl of water and discard those that float. To roast, slice an "x" in each and toss in the oven at 425 for roughly 20 minutes or until fragrant and blossomed, then cool and crack off shells.

Hen of the woods aka maitake (Grifola frondosa)

This year, in particular, has provided an amazing mushroom yield and I've had many an ambitious hike stymied by the array of colorful fungi not only at my feet amidst the stumps and mosses, but blooming from tree trunks beside me and overhead. But, a hike spent discovering mushrooms is just as good as any sweat-inducing mile-counting hike in my book. I've stumbled upon more hen of the woods than I could even put to use. However, allegedly ethical as it is to harvest as many mushrooms as one pleases, I still like to follow the same rule of thumb that I do with plants - take a smaller portion than you leave behind. I found this particular beauty growing at the base of, wouldn't you know it, a rather delicious wild apple tree. I regularly visit this tree for lunch - it provides just the right amount of shade in a sweeping meadow I like to frequent - and on one special day I found this hen roosting beside me.

Hen of the woods undersides

You may know hen of the woods, scientifically named Grifola frondosa, as maitake - they are one in the same. It is a perennial mushroom, blooming annually in the fall at the base of old hardwoods, most typically oaks. However, don't look for a tall stipe (a mushroom stalk) and round cap, but rather a layering of fan-like, firm, structures (we still could call these caps) that taper towards the base. Hen of the woods is a polypore, meaning that it does not bear gills, but rather tiny pin-sized holes. These pores are where its spores are produced. 

Hen of the woods cleaned and separated

Roasted hen of the woods

To prepare hen of the woods, slice tender fans from the tough base and then peel apart in sections. Hens are easily portioned this way into smaller pieces for cooking. Then clean of debris by rinsing in water or patting clean with a damp cloth. I harvested this hen when I had little time for prep, therefore into the fridge it went, where it kept nicely in a loose plastic bag (paper is fine too, but too many days in paper and it will begin to dehydrate). Then I cleaned and cooked up the whole lady, sauteing half and roasting the rest. This was my first go-round at roasting and I have found, side-by-side, I much prefer the roasted. I tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh sliced garlic, roasting at 400 degrees until it was fragrant, shimmery, and charred on the edges. Deelish! Scott and I enjoyed hen of the woods in about every dish imaginable for nearly a week. Then it was time to portion the rest and freeze for use throughout the winter. Hen of the woods is not only yummy with a strong earthy taste but is rich in minerals and antioxidants, and medicinally speaking, is supportive to immunity, anti-cancer, and adaptogenic, meaning that it can tame the negative effects of stress on the body.

Egypt Lake in Delaware State Forest - I suspect all that red is highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

There is no denying that autumn is here. I would be a fool to expend any energy on wishing otherwise, for thankfully, there are still many aspects of nature, we humans, cannot control. Winter will come and the landscape will be white and brown and slate gray, but I will bundle up and be grateful for the heat my body produces as I stomp down the trail in boots and burdensome clothing. And just as summer once did, winter will feel as if it might never end, the green growth of that opposing season but a fond memory. But then, without my willing a thing, the sap will run and a green shoot will appear, first one, then two, then three, then too many to count and the trees will flower, and the smell of spring will be in the air. So today and everyday forward, I'm just going to revel, revel in this heart-aching gratitude for the change of seasons and the beauty of autumn.