My husband Chas and I were riding our bikes along Eastlake Boulevard last week when I heard a rooster crowing. Not an uncommon sound in a rural area, but this was in the middle of nowhere — no houses, no ranches. We stopped to investigate and found a flock of 12 of the most perfect bantam chickens of several varieties. Clearly they’d been left there by someone who could no longer afford to keep them.
My foraging instincts kicked in. My last old hen died three years ago and now I want bantams — I love the crazy variety of the birds, and the tiny eggs. In my mind, suddenly, these were my chickens.
Unfortunately by the time we went back with a net to retrieve them most were gone except a loud little rooster and two hens who were extremely adept at not being netted. We withdrew in defeat, leaving them to the coyotes and the owls.
My gardening — and eating — career has been marked by foraging. There were the remains of a World War II victory garden in an overgrown field by my elementary school, and we kids used to search out the hardy old rhubarb plants among the tall weeds, and chew the sour stalks. My first apple pies were baked with apples I gathered in an old pioneer orchard — little, sweet, wormy apples for which I had to compete with the local mule deer and black bears. One of my best foraging episodes was when I caught a catfish with a cooking pot in the Escalante River in Utah — though up until then I had not known how sharp catfish barbs were.
My latest foraging endeavor took place last April when Rob Jennings, pastor of the Methodist Church, called on Good Friday evening and asked whether I could pick up a swarm of honeybees that had settled on the trunk of a cottonwood tree between the church and the parking lot. The sooner the better, he said. The timing of the bee pickup was critical, because the Methodist Church is a busy place on Good Friday, and we had to find a window after the services and before the AA meetings. Bees get stirred up when they’re being retrieved and we didn’t want AA members and churchgoers to get stung.
With the help of a friendly AA member, who was so interested in the bees he missed his meeting, we got the bees, who are now in our backyard. We have a great crop of fruit this year from our apple and cherry trees, so I think they’ve been doing their work.
People have been foraging and gleaning — hunting for wild food and gathering food crops left in fields after the harvest — well, since there have been people. In the Deuteronomic Code of the Torah, farmers are directed to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the remaining harvest could be gathered by strangers, widows and orphans. The Old Testament Book of Ruth tells us the widow Ruth fed herself and the widow Naomi with what she gleaned from the fields. In rural 18th century England, gleaning was a legal right of the poor. The village sexton would ring the church bell in the morning and in the evening to tell the gleaners when to begin and end work. Today there are gleaning networks in communities throughout the world who gather leftover food and crops and distribute it to the hungry.
Carson City has a gleaning network called the Fruit Barons that works with homeowners to harvest and donate excess fruit from their trees. It’s a good fruit year, Tom Henderson, owner of Healthy Trees and a founder of the Fruit Barons, told me. So far they’ve harvested apricots and cherries and donated them to the Senior Center, Advocates, Do Drop Inn and the Salvation Army. Tom says they need more volunteers though. He’s looking for some high school or college kids who are good at climbing trees and ladders. (If you’re interested in volunteering or donating, call Tom at Healthy Trees.)
FISH also benefits from surplus fruit and vegetables from Carson City gardens. FISH’s Jim Peckham told me they’re now serving about 4,300 meals a week, and it’s hard to get enough fresh fruits and vegetables. He asked me to tell gardeners who’d like to donate their excess produce to take it to the FISH dining room or food pantry. He said they even like zucchinis, but he asked the zukes be donated before they’re “as big as a canoe.”
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.