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Foraging for fiddleheads ferns

May 20, 2014

Foraging for fiddlehead ferns connects father and son

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Time in the woods is grounding. After an especially long winter, the waking forest sparks a sense of wonder in our young kids, Zoe and Adam.

This spring, we added an element of adventure by foraging for fiddleheads — the curled tips of fronds on young ferns, which when blanched and sautéed, become a nutritious addition to an evening meal.

Novices at fiddlehead foraging, we made many trips to a patch of woods — only a 5-minute walk from our home — to scout and harvest these forest edibles during their notoriously short season.

On our first visit, the forest floor was more brown than green. Layers of maple and oak leaves crunched under our rubber boots. When we spotted our first emerging cluster of fiddles, the forest floor came to life for Zoe and Adam. They scurried about, arguing over who found more fiddles. We collected only mental images of the places in the landscape where we would return in the coming weeks, and headed home.

A week later we experienced our first harvest. Careful to pick only a few heads from each cluster, leaving the plant enough energy to sustain itself, we practiced the art of selecting the ripest fiddles, which we consumed with a sense of accomplishment a short while later.

The third visit produced about the same yield as the previous outing, likely because the days were growing warmer and we were foraging in the late afternoon despite reading that optimal fiddlehead foraging occurs in the cool morning hours. Adding to the disappointment, I over-cooked the fiddles that night.

By our fourth visit, it was obvious that fiddlehead season had come and gone — at least in the lower reaches of the valley where daytime temperatures had spiked into the mid 80s — leaving us with little to show for our first season of foraging.

So on this visit, alone with Adam, we quickly turned our attention to other adventures. Waist-deep in ferns and skunk cabbage, Adam led us along the main drainage in search of critters. As he hopped from bank to bank, slippery frogs darted away. Eventually he captured a baby toad, marveling at his accomplishment, before gently releasing his catch.

Later we spotted a fresh raccoon track at the brook’s edge and then, as we reached the far edge of the forest, three deer bolted, white tails waving as they raced away.

I extended my hand and Adam quickly reached up to grab it.

“I like holding your hand,” I said.

“I like holding your hand, too,” Adam replied.

After a brief pause, Adam shared, “I like holding your hand when I am scared.”

“Are you scared now?” I asked.

“I am always scared when I am in the woods because I am afraid of bears in the woods,” he replied.

Inwardly I smiled, thinking that during most of our forest adventures Adam has boldly explored far ahead, often out of sight, always reluctant to return when I have called for him to stay close.

But now, I relished the soft feel of his soon-to-be 5-year-old hand, hoping he will always be comfortable telling me when he is afraid. We continued along the path toward home, chatting about bird sounds and shapes of trees, our bag empty of fiddleheads.

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