Andersen: We’re still hunter/gatherers
Gathering firewood in the fall is more than a domestic chore. For me, it’s a rite of autumn, a detail to be savored. Firewood is not mere labor; it is an instinct that I obey with the same passion felt by early man as he hunted a mastodon.
A few weeks ago, my firewood pile was pitifully small — with only an odd assortment of logs and sticks. I felt a gnawing urge but knew that gathering must take place when the air is cool, when leaves are turning.
Summer is not firewood time; it is food-gathering time. It starts at my home with our lettuce garden, which in late May began sprouting red and green varieties, spinach and cilantro.
Gathering healthy, raw materials for salads is like pruning a bonsai garden: Take just the right amount, but leave enough for continued growth. Successive plantings ensure recurring harvests for the best salads in the world.
Voles were a problem this year, and a burgeoning population of bunnies added to the predation on our gardens. Rather than nuking the voles and rabbits with traps and chemicals, we covered our beds with netting that hampered the critters from eradicating our Euell Gibbons pastime.
We came to appreciate our bunnies, including old One Ear, a lopsided buck who was born in June and hops around our place still. Despite them all, we didn’t buy any salad greens all summer long, and that’s a good feeling.
As our root crops developed, we looked to our cherry tree, a perfectly formed little tree we planted 20 years ago that typically produces buckets of pie cherries. We didn’t get one cherry this year because of hunter-gatherers far more skilled than we: magpies.
These cackling, marauding birds were so prolific and bold that we decided not even to compete. We gave them full access and watched them devour cherry after cherry, pits and all. Our satisfaction came in knowing that passing those pits must have been the reason for every guttural squawk echoing around our home.
Giving up on cherries, my son, Tait, and I observed several apricot trees on public roadways that were going unpicked. One day we pulled over, spent 10 minutes on a particularly productive tree and came away with 10 pounds of ripe fruit.
We cooked up the apricots in honey, cinnamon and nutmeg, poured the fragrant mix into mason jars and pressure-cooked them for preservation. Our jam is a treasure as we watch the sun dip to the south and the days shorten. With a shelf full of locally grown jam, we can taste summer all winter long.
Tait and I did the same with apples. A friend offered us the bounty of her trees rather than leaving it to the bears, so we spent 20 minutes snagging ripe apples that we made into honey-sweetened applesauce. Now we spread it on pancakes as a savory complement to the cooling weather of autumn.
Firewood is the final detail, the fin de siecle of the hunting-and-gathering season, a time to appreciate the smell of wood, the lifting and hauling, the splitting of rounds. Seeing the porch stacked high warms something inside me that goes back to my earliest human roots.
There are many hunter-gatherers here in the Roaring Fork Valley. Some go for ’shrooms. Some drive to Paonia for peaches, pears or apples — the fruit de jour. Many hunt for meat with bows, arrows and rifles. Some even process roadkill deer and elk.
These hunter-gatherers freeze or can their goods. Shelves throughout the valley sag with food you could easily buy at the store but wouldn’t appreciate half as much as that which you have gathered yourself. Satisfaction is amplified by knowing where your food is from and by having a hand in its production.
Instinct is the driving force — that and a declaration of independence from the industrial, mechanized, petrochemical food chain. A good feeling comes from an ancestral urge to find, harvest and process what’s pure and unadulterated.
On even the coldest days of winter, a hot wood-burning stove and good food keep the hunter-gatherer warm.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached between wood-splitting sessions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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