Our frontier ancestors would be horrified. They wore rough homespun clothing and ate heavy homemade brown bread because they had to. They grubbed in the earth for roots and berries and bitter herbs, saving every penny so that we, their affluent, civilized descendants, could bask in plenty, wearing silky, easy-care fabrics and eating airy white bread made by hands other than our own.
What would they have thought, could they have known that droves of their heirs would deem homespun chic, and would eat chewy brown bread because we like it better? That sensible city folk might find wresting roots and berries and bitter herbs from a vacant lot a more enjoyable way to spend a spring afternoon than cruising down the air-conditioned aisles of a well-stocked mega-market?
Then again, our forefathers might not be horrified at all. They might admire the pioneer spirit shown by people like Bill Messenger, who learn to find food, medicine and spiritual sustenance where others might see only waste and weeds.
Mr. Messenger, who holds a master's degree in English, is a sort of a Harford County Renaissance man, teaching and writing on a variety of topics that interest him. He teaches the history of popular music at Essex Community College, conducts music classes at senior centers and leads a couple of programs for young people, "The Three R's: Ragtime to Rock and Roll" and (with dancer Binnie Richiehoven), "Emotions in Motion," which demonstrates how creative people make use of their emotions when they make art. He has had about 200 articles published, many on ecology-elated topics, and one of his science-fiction stories appeared in an Isaac Asimov anthology, "Tomorrow's Voices."
However, the two-part class he will be teaching this month as part of Essex Community College's continuing education series will focus on a topic that predates art and literature. In "Foraging for Food," 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and June 11, Mr. Messenger will teach participants about the gourmet treats that can be found in any back yard or vacant lot in Baltimore.
"The first session is going to be spent in the classroom," he says. "We're going to learn some basic tricks to help us recognize wild plants. We're going to identify a lot of samples, and look at slides of a variety of wild plants that are native to the Maryland area."
Most of the discussion will focus on the use of wild plants as food, but their medicinal value and history will also be touched on. (Although, Mr. Messenger says, he doesn't do any prescribing.)
"More than 50 percent of the medicines we now use were originally derived from wild plants. They have since been synthesized," he says. "Right now there is a great deal of research being done on wild plants as treatments for AIDS and cancer. Derivatives of the May apple plant and the bloodroot have been used in cancer research."
In the second session, he will take students to his Harford County farm, Little Brook, for a hands-on introduction to the edible wild plants that have been encouraged to grow there. After identifying and gathering the plants, and assessing their nutritional qualities, the students get a chance to cook and eat them. Mr. Messenger uses a couple of culinary sources, including his favorite, an autographed copy of "The Wild, Wild Cookbook," by Jean Craighead George, who also wrote "My Side of the Mountain."
A foraging session is an adventure for several senses, including taste. Participants learn to identify the yellow flowers that signal the presence of wild mustard, or to spot the tightly curled heads of tasty fiddlehead ferns nestled in the grass. They also learn to use their noses to sniff out such unforgettable smells and tastes as wild mint, pineapple plant and even stinky skunk cabbage which, properly cooked, tastes a little like asparagus.
Mr. Messenger attributes his interest in wild plants and places partially to his Blackfoot ancestry on his father's side; American Indian tribes, he explains, did not think in terms of restructuring the environment in their own image, but respected the earth on its own terms.
"Picking and eating wild plants gives you an appreciation for the incredible variety of beneficial things the environment contains," he says. "It also gives us a respect for that environment."
He was first moved to make use of the earth's free gifts in the '60s, when he read Euell Gibbons' book "Stalking the Wild Asparagus." Inspired, he took every opportunity to venture into fields, woods and marshy areas, as well as more urban hunting grounds, in pursuit of wild foods. He learned, too, that the sheep farm he shares with his wife Evelyn, a children's librarian, was a supermarket of untamed edibles.
"We have 16 acres, and we didn't have a lawn mower for years," he explains. "The sheep being somewhat selective, we just let some areas grow a little wild. I discovered that a lot of the plants growing in those areas were edible."
In the '70s, the self-taught forager taught others about living off the land with articles in Maryland Conservationist magazine and a regular newspaper column on the country life, "Reflections from Little Brook."
While a changing economy and soaring land prices nipped the back-to-the-land movement in the bud, "earth consciousness" is on the rise again, and born-again "greens" can still find plenty of places close to home where they can get in touch with the earth and its bounty.
Gravel driveways, for instance, are often home to the pineapple plant, whose yellow, pineapple-scented flower makes a delicious tea. Overgrown day lily patches around the homes of cooperative neighbors can be thinned out, and the extra bulbs boiled and eaten with salt and pepper like potatoes. Hikers who frequent open fields or marshes might discover the pleasures of new milkweed pods, which taste like okra, or young, green cattails, which, when boiled, might remind the diner of corn on the cob.
"There is no botanical thing called a 'weed,' " Mr. Messenger says. "Euell Gibbons used to say that a weed was simply a plant whose uses we haven't determined."
However, foragers have determined that many weeds despised by gardeners and homeowners -- dandelion, chicory plantain, dock, poke -- have their culinary uses. Poke is a special spring favorite. Mr. Messenger cuts the stalks before they begin to turn red or berries form, pops them into boiling water, cooks them like asparagus and serves them with wine vinegar and bacon bits (soy bacon for vegetarians and cholesterol-watchers).
Some parts of the poke, though, are poisonous, and red in the stem indicates the presence of a toxin called phytollicin. Many plants, he points out, even common ones, are inedible at some stage in their development (such as green potatoes), or have inedible parts (such as tomato leaves). Wild plants are no different from their cultivated cousins in this regard.
Still, he advocates caution for all foragers. He teaches his students how to identify poisonous look-alikes, and promotes a cautious respect for unidentified wild things. Anyone, whether novice or experienced forager, should never eat anything without being 100 percent certain of its identity and safety.
While gathering wild plants is an enjoyable hobby, not to mention a good source of free food, Bill Messenger claims that it's more.
"What I do has spiritual value in an age where everybody seems to be so fun-oriented," he explains. "Fun lasts for just a few minutes, followed by a big vacuum. But walking around in the country and gathering things gives you a connection with the universe you live in, and a joy which is deeper than fun, and lasts when the fun is over."
For more information on "Foraging for Food," call the office of continuing education, Essex Community College, 522-1551.