A Walk in the Woods 

Nature offers a nutritious bounty, if you know where to look

These days, I tend to think of the woods as the redundant green backdrop I see along the shoulder of the road as I whiz by.
These days, I tend to think of the woods as the redundant green backdrop I see along the shoulder of the road as I whiz by. That is, until I meet Bob Brown and Deb Beazley. A few weeks before the forest’s fall harvest of nuts and berries ripens, Deb, head naturalist at the Warner Parks, and Bob, an avid outdoorsman who knows the parks inside and out, agree to take me on a tour of edible plants. You see, I have recently cultivated a small kitchen garden, and the joy of living off the land—or at least picking tomatoes and basil by the backdoor—has got me thinking about ways to live slightly more deliberately. These days, I tend to think of the woods as the redundant green backdrop I see along the shoulder of the road as I whiz by. That is, until I meet Bob Brown and Deb Beazley. A few weeks before the forest’s fall harvest of nuts and berries ripens, Deb, head naturalist at the Warner Parks, and Bob, an avid outdoorsman who knows the parks inside and out, agree to take me on a tour of edible plants. You see, I have recently cultivated a small kitchen garden, and the joy of living off the land—or at least picking tomatoes and basil by the backdoor—has got me thinking about ways to live slightly more deliberately. On a hot late-summer morning, the three of us, along with Bob’s dog, Trouble, meet at the park nature center. Bob hands me three sheets of legal paper on which he has hand-written the names (both Latin and common) of about 100 edible species he expects we’ll see on our walk. The plants—everything from blackberries to shepherd’s purse—are organized by serving suggestion: teas, condiments, cooked vegetables, salad greens. And Bob has made notes like “Chenopodium album, Lamb’s quarters, steam or boil 10-15 min.” Meanwhile, Deb reminds us that picking plants in the park is prohibited. We talk briefly about hunter/gatherer cultures, the history of industry and the rise of agrarian society. We look at Deb’s collection of leaves, nuts and pods gathered from the park, then we head to the organic garden tucked behind the nature center. The fertile patch, open to visitors and tended by volunteers, is nothing short of breathtaking compared to my own struggling bed of parsley, sage and arugula. Deb introduces me to an edible tuber also known as wapato and to some maypop, the official wildflower of Tennessee. She leads us to lush sumac, which, she says, I can steep to make a tasty lemonade. She shows me ground ivy, wild grape leaves and cattails, all edible. She finds some pokeweed, which might have made tasty eating earlier in the spring, but by now will be poisonous. When Deb points her toe at a patch of wood sorrel, I recognize the invasive weed I’ve been trying all summer to stomp out. And when she gestures toward some violets, the hydras of my perennial bed, a plucking reflex triggers in my thumb and forefinger. When I ask Deb if she uses herbicides to keep the weeds down around the nature center, she looks as if I have just suggested purchasing some art to match a sofa. In Deb’s eyes, my herbaceous vermin are just part of nature’s rich diversity, good on salads and rich in vitamin C. It’s a philosophy I’m momentarily tempted to embrace, until Deb identifies a patch of common plantain, the persistent broadleaf currently crowding out my grass, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve paid my TrueGreen bill. Our garden tour concludes in a grove of persimmon trees, then Deb and Trouble head back to the library, and Bob and I strike out for a walk in the woods. At 75, Bob is a self-proclaimed “volunteer naturalist” who visits the park almost daily. As we wind along the path behind the nature center, he spots some white snakeroot, the plant believed responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother. He shows me a wild, non-native rosebush and waves to a tall patch of ragweed. He crushes a leaf of spicebush to bring out the fragrance. It’s supposed to make a nice tea, he says. A chemical engineer by training, Bob has near-encyclopedic recall of botanical structures. He points out leaves that are ovate, opposite and compound, distinguishing between Chinquapin and white oaks, shagbark and shellbark hickories, and black and white walnuts. He talks about the difference between the soils in Warner and Beaman parks and how the mineral composition impacts the plants in each. It’s knowledge he picked up in part when he volunteered to conduct a plant survey of the Natchez Trace, in part from the many classes he has taken since retiring from the securities business. As our path merges with the park road, Bob picks up acorns that are not yet ripe. Later in the fall, he says, we could boil them to remove the bitter tannins and serve them on a salad. When we pass a pawpaw tree, Bob remembers the strong tropical smell of pawpaws ripening on his kitchen table before being made into a pie. As we pass fields of tall greens, Bob advises that it’s just as important to know what not to eat in the woods. “Don’t eat anything with milky juice,” he warns. On the banks of the road we see beechnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts and mustard. When we find a black cherry tree, Bob picks the tiny fruit and gives me one. I eat a small handful of elderberries. There is a lot of ragweed in the Warner Parks. My back-of-the-envelope math suggests the TrueGreen man could purge the whole 2,700-acre domain for about $50,000 a month. But the redundancy of so much goldenrod and honeysuckle doesn’t bore Bob, who seems to see each sprig and shoot and tuft as a critical piece of the picture. He walks slowly, looking deliberately at the leafy canopy. Every few yards he stops again to look at another walnut. Another hackberry. Another mitten-shaped sassafras leaf. Some bergamot. All are edible, and Bob knows just what to do with them. But Bob’s not much for foraging. Truth be told, he’d rather just pull out a tea bag. And as for the acorns I’m gathering, “They’re OK raw,” Bob allows. “But you don’t eat a whole bowl, you just taste them. It’s a matter of taste.”

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