Loving Life in Reykjavik Iceland!

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Icelandic river water holding up my hair, I am standing in between where the North American and European tectonic plates separate!

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“Hippie Hole” in Vermont

One highlight from this weekend was swimming in the “Hippie Hole” in Montgomery Vermont. It was later in the afternoon, and the water was ice cold, but I could not resist jumping in, a couple minutes after these pictures were taken. I got used to it pretty quickly and managed to swim around for a couple minutes, and jump in a couple more times. Swimming up the little carved out rock section felt magical, and putting my head under the waterfall was refreshing/ gave me an ice-cream headache.

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You may have noticed I have travelled to a lot of surrounding areas this summer for mini-vacations. That sort of goes back to the purpose of this blog in making sure I enjoy every moment, and have fun with life. Not everyone likes to travel, but I realized after the cruise I went on this February to the Caribbean that going places and seeing new things is one of the things I enjoy the most. I am thrilled to have gotten the opportunity to travel, since February to Indianapolis, New York City, Vermont, and multiple places in New Hampshire, and still have time to explore new places in Massachusetts great for hiking, like the Douglas State Forest, and the Blackstone River. I even managed to visit the old spots too like my favorite local lake.

But hiking, nature, traveling, exercise, cooking, writing, and foraging are what works to keep me energized and happy, not necessarily everyone else. I think its good for people to explore some hobbies or interests and really find their niche in terms of what makes them tick. Having goals, big and small, is a great way to remain positive and steer clear of any ruts. Gaining skills and knowledge, whether for a practical purpose, or just for fun, is also key to loving every moment of life, instead of waiting for the weekend, or a vacation.

Heading into the winter can be daunting, especially in New England. I have another vacation to Florida planned for November to remedy this in part. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic to keep you going strong. Maybe set a goal for something to accomplish this winter, or pick up a new hobby that can keep you busy inside when the weather gets rough. Or perhaps just step back and enjoy the moment, which is also super important to remaining excited about life, in my opinion. I’m looking forward to picking apples, and just got the urge to chop some wood, but for now, I’m going to go outside and enjoy this weather!

Magical Elderberries

“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” -French Guy in Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

For a long time, that was about all the exposure I had to elderberries. But recently, my sister’s boyfriend has been searching for wild elderberries to forage in order to make some elderberry infused hard cider. I have come across many berries foraging, but until recently I only picked the obviously edible ones: blackberries, raspberries, grapes, and bunchberries. Now that I have properly identified them, I know I have seen elderberries, or the American Elder, many times before.

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This is sort of how the progression of foraging has worked for me. In the beginning, everything just looked green. Grass, shrub, brush, tree. But then as I reviewed my foraging books I realized that in one square foot there might be 15 different plants, where as before it just all looked like grass. Foraging is tedious in the beginning, because you must review the plants you are after, and then consult the book every time you spot something that looks familiar. And then most of the time, it is not in fact what you are looking for. The time is not wasted since now you know to pass by the plant, but it can be disappointing to spend 10 minutes trying to identify something you are hoping to eat, only to realize it is not edible.

But after this process is repeated many times, certain plants can be noticed everywhere! It is just a matter of continuously reviewing the plants in the books, and consulting the books every time you think you find an edible plant in the field. The frequency of being correct when spotting what you think is a wild edible increases as your knowledge increases, and then foraging becomes more fun.

So that is where I felt I was with berries. I had a lot of the green stuff down: everywhere I go I now see common plantain, japanese knot-wood, purslane, lady’s thumb, burdock, etc. But when I would see berries in the field all I saw was: red berries, purple berries, large berries, small berries, hard berries, etc. After Sunday’s little foraging adventure however, I feel more comfortable with certain berries, which will undoubtedly propel future identifications, since I have some references in my head to either quickly rule certain ones out, or recognize them.

I identified chokecherries and elderberries while ruling out the edibility of a shiny bunchy blue berry, and smaller, less juicy red berries. I also laid the groundwork of identification so that hopefully next time around I can make sure what I saw were in fact not-quite-ripe hawthorns. I left the chokecherries alone; while edible they contain poisonous pits with hydrocyanic acid. But I gathered almost a full ziplock sandwich bag full of elderberries, and will probably return for more. Then I froze them, and will be giving them to my sister and her boyfriend as to better use them for important homemade products: various alcohols.

The two pictures I took and posted here were actually some of the more sparsely berried plants I found. Elderberries can form significantly larger bunches that “umbrella” out at the end. Elderberries do NOT grow from one hanging stem like black cherries and the poisonous pokeweed.

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But it turns out wine and jam are not the only things great about elderberries. For hundreds—possibly thousands—of years, elderberries, elder flowers, and even the leaves have been reputed to have magical and or healing properties. Since sickness was sometimes blamed on black magic back in the day, I think the healing properties of elderberry are one and the same with the magical properties. Or maybe there is more than meets the eye. Elderberry bushes are said to cause visions of fairies and elves if you sit under one on a midsummer night. I hear these sightings are even more vivid if earlier in the day you ate certain foraged mushrooms. 😉

But according to The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, elderberries can be used to help against flu, cough, and colds, as well as improve immune system function. Also, according to this website, elderberries are one of the highest anti-oxidant containing fruits, which is why they would help to improve immune function, and ward off colds and flu.

Elderberry fruits are an excellent source of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6 (Table 1). They also contain sterols, tannins, and essential oils (Anon. 2005) and can readily be considered a healthy food…

In folk medicine, elder berries have been used for their diaphoretic, laxative and diuretic properties (Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005; Merica et al. 2006) and to treat various illnesses such as stomach ache, sinus conges- tion, constipation, diarrhea, sore throat, common cold, and rheumatism (Novelli 2003; Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005). The flowers are said to have diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, and topical anti-inflammatory actions (Merica et al. 2006). Some of these properties seem justified since elderberry fruits contain tannins and viburnic acid, both known to have a positive effect on diarrhea, nasal congestion, and to improve respiration (Novelli 2003). Leaves and inner bark have also been used for their purgative, emetic, diuretic, laxative, topical emollient, expectorant, and diaphoretic action (Merica et al. 2006).

I’ll be sure to update you all on how great I feel after sampling some of the hard cider and wine made from my foraged elderberries!

Solid Day of Canoeing on My Favorite Lake

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Yesterday’s canoe trip to a lake a couple towns over started off a bit rough. When I turned the canoe over to put it on my car, there were various species of spiders living on and inside, with about 6,000 baby spiders each. I felt a little bad hosing them off, but I wasn’t about to share my canoe trip with them. Then, before we hoisted the canoe on top of the car, a small snake appeared on the back of the canoe. Now although I am not afraid of snakes, I couldn’t help but freak out a bit because when I say appeared, I mean it was not there one second, and was there the next second. I have no idea where it came from, though my friend thinks it may have been tossed into the canoe from the opening of my car’s trunk. We just tipped the canoe to let him escape into the woods.

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It was like a mini-horror movie… but not really. The rest of the trip was quite a good time. Had some subs out on the lake, visited some islands, ate some wild blueberries, tossed some logs into a tree for sport… and it miraculously became art.

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Is it horrible that we fed some ants to the school of fish by the shore on one of the islands? I mean, fish need to eat too…

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Alex struck a gargoyle pose after shoving off… or he might have been stuck I’m not sure.

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It was slightly cloudy, but that didn’t ruin anything. In fact it might have been better with the cooler weather.

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A good shot from the bow…

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And of the stern with Steve’s finger in it (btw thanks Steve for taking all these pictures)…

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And yes I had to look up the terms bow and stern…

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Overdosing on Nature!

A 3.5 hour drive in beautiful weather up to the trailhead in New Hampshire. The doors open, it starts raining… pouring really. We hear some thunder in the distance. Its okay, we came prepared. In fact it would have been strange if it wasn’t raining, I don’t think I have ever completed a camping trip without at least one downpour. It felt like the start of a good adventure! And we could always get dry tomorrow. So I set out with my dad, uncle, and cousin.

Two miles uphill to the fork in the trail where we would make base camp for the 2 mountain peaks that we planned to hike the next day. Still raining, but luckily my dad found a good spot off the trail next to a river where we could fit 2 tents. We strung up a tarp, heated up some beef stew, and cracked some beers.

Yes, we carry beers with us even when space in our packs is limited. But good hoppy beers, not some of that light crap. It did indeed stop raining the next day, so I was able to make my usual backwoods refrigerator also known as the river. I just pile some rocks up to make sure the beers don’t float away, and voila, the cold mountain water cools them down.

At the top of one of the mountain peaks, I found the rock I would sit on were I to become a wizard inhabiting the region (I have pictures, but I did not take them, so they will have to come in a later post). It looked out over the valley of wilderness to the east of the South Carter, and Middle Carter Mountain. On top of Middle Carter I picked some Labrador Tea. Good flavor, but I didn’t have too much since “some sources describe the mountain version as poisonous” according to one of my books. I brought some home however, and will probably try it again with such easy access to hospitals, should something go wrong.

And the wisdom gained from elders sitting around the campfire is second to none. Drinking our river cooled beers after a solid 8 mile hike topping two 4,000+ foot peaks; “Relationships are like logs in a fire” my uncle mused. “Set the logs too far apart, and they extinguish. Set them too close together, they will smother each other and go out. You have got to put the logs at just the right distance for them to feed off one another, and keep the fire lit”.

And somehow, I hadn’t had enough hiking when I got back to Massachusetts, so I ventured out on Saturday to Douglas state forest. I supposed I might hike 4 miles, but that turned into about 7 when I got lost. Turns out there are many more paths than suggested by the map I found that someone had dropped on the trail. After stopping by the shores of Wallum lake…

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And finding a wild “Hen of the Woods” mushrooms that I later sauteed with some onions and garlic (it was actually wicked good)…

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And coming across some interesting structures and old foundations in the woods…

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For the first time I put the position of the sun to practical use in order to decide which trail to take, and good thing. I was heading south towards Connecticut, when I should have been heading west towards my car. So since I knew it was afternoon, I knew the sun would be more towards the west, I took an offshoot in that general direction.

This got me going in the right-ish direction, and sooner or later I happened upon the tri-state marker where Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island meet! I thought this was pretty cool, and was thrilled that I had gotten lost, because 1) I didn’t know that marker was in the forest and to stumble upon it was kind of like finding treasure or Narnia (well maybe not quite that cool) and 2) even if I did know I might have considered the hike too far.

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But in the end it was only another mile or two back to my car from the marker. So that’s where I have been for the better part of the last week; lots of hiking, nature, and good times.

Foraging for Wild Edible Plants: Milkweed

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This is common milkweed, and it is a wild edible! One thing I enjoy doing in my spare time, is finding wild edible foods to forage. I like nature anyway, so it is a good activity, its fun, and productive. And its free; why pay for fresh vegetables when there are plenty all around you! (I buy vegetables too, don’t feel bad).

Warning: I am not a foraging expert. I have a few foraging books and consult websites. Always be certain of identification. If I’m wrong and you get sick, you can try suing me, but there’s not that much to take! Some edible plants have poisonous parts, poisonous look a-likes, or must be treated before eating. This plant in particular is poisonous when raw, it must be cooked!

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Okay now that we got that out of the way, I can tell you about my first milkweed flower and bud cluster experience. First I found some milkweed in my parent’s backyard, and properly identified it. Milkweed stands on a stalk, and does not have any branches (a poisonous look alike has branches). Its leaves are opposite each other, and alternate a half turn as they go up the plant. Looking from the top, it appears as a plus sign. When broken, the plant excretes a white sticky “milky” sap, like this:

20140709_144748The young tips and newly unfurled leave are also edible, and later the seed pods, but today I just foraged the bud clusters, and flower clusters (every part of milkweed must be cooked before being eaten, usually boiled for 15 minutes, sometimes in a change of water). Young tips would be slightly earlier in the season, buds are great now (at least in my region of southern MA) in July, and later into August seed pods will become more prevalent. Just for reference, here is the young plant that has not yet developed buds.

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You can eat the bud clusters, and newly opened flower clusters, though the books more specifically tell you to go after the bud clusters as opposed to flower clusters. I picked some that were still firm and green, some that were a little farther along turning pinkish, and some where most of the flowers were already open.

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Then, milkweed is pretty simple to prepare. I just boiled the bud clusters for about 20 minutes, changing the water at 15 minutes by adding already boiling water to the pot once I drained it of the original water. Apparently these could be a little bitter if you don’t change the water.

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I just ate them with a little bit of salt in order to get to know the flavor, but there are plenty of ways to prepare these, just make sure you cook them, but otherwise, be imaginative! That’s one of the best parts of foraging. But anyway it had almost a rice like taste, but sort of the texture of cooked broccoli (which makes sense, those are bud clusters as well). I think with a little cider or balsamic vinegar it would be quite the fare. This is what it looked like cooked.

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And this is proof that I’m not just messing with you!

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And while we are on the subject of foraging, I found a little sheep sorrel while picking my milkweed. Sheep sorrel is a small green leaf that grows close to the ground in clusters, and sort of looks like a dagger, or a wizard hat. There are no similar looking poisonous plants.

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Notice the signature barbs at the bottom of the leaf. It is an awesome “trail nibble”, you can eat it raw and it has a sour taste, sort of like a green apple. I like to eat it raw, but you can also cook it and serve it like spinach (just might take a while to pick enough!), and then use the leftover water as a nice drink, almost like a cross between iced tea and lemonade. There is a warning in my book not to eat too much because it could cause stomach upset. Apparently I’ve never had enough for that to happen. This one is pretty easy to identify due to its distinctive look.

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All this information I have gained from the books Edible Wild Plants by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman, and Foraging New England by Tom Seymour. The former is a great field guide, and the latter is a great introduction, and includes more reading material on each plant mentioned, though fewer plants are shown. Let me know if you find these and try them for yourself!