One morning recently, our not-yet-three year-old son Beren woke up and said "Let's eat yucky food". It's always nice to wake up on the cheerful side of the bed, so we all lay around joking about eating "mud splaps" and "mushy pears" and various "poopy" items as well.
Later that same day, most of the way through an exhausting visit from a friend and her exuberant child, a frazzled Beren looked dubiously at his dinner and called it "pokeweed sauce" before wiggling away from the table.
A good leap of the imagination for a kid whose vocabulary had, a few months prior, been limited to "Momma", "Papa", "get it", and a few other choice necessities.
Beren is very fond of wild edibles, especially berries. As summer is drawing to a close and pokeweed fruit has started turning an enticing purple, I pointed out the plant for Beren on a recent walk at Duke Farms. "This is pokeweed. Its berries are eaten by birds, but not people. If you ate it, you would feel very sick."
Ten minutes later, we were in the parking lot watching a mockingbird eating the deep purple fruits. "Not people food" Beren informed us. From then on, the categories "people food" and "bird food" were pretty well enshrined.
Beren eats and recognizes a wide array of wild edible foods, often with more gusto and more adventurousness than ordinary table fare. Wood sorrel, dandelion, field garlic, garlic mustard, wineberry, blackberry, blackcaps, purple-flowering raspberry, partridgeberry and others are readily recognized wild fare, and new introductions from the field are usually accepted and quickly learned.
Botany skills started early. These were no doubt catalyzed by having two plant-inclined parents, but all the skills were latent and quick to emerge. Even the completely pre-lingual one-year old Beren recognized what we then called "Ouch plant" (the thorny invasive multiflora rose) and would regularly point it out to us on the trail. Some of his earliest words included "lichen" and "fungus".
It took a while longer for him to recognize multi-faceted poison ivy, but by his second summer he not only had it down, but recognized the similar (but palmately five-leaved) Virginia creeper as "not ivy", his own construction.
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I like to think that excellent plant recognition is fundamental to all people. We're not just equipped with senses that can help us differentiate plants -- we're equipped with senses that evolved with observation of plants as a pre-eminent driver.
Though we've become an extremely visually-dominated culture, all of our sense are finely attuned to the scale, spectrum, and scent of the botanical kingdom.
When I lead walks or teach plant classes, I always ask people to smell the spicebush foliage, taste the fiery leaves of wild bergamot, and touch the scabrous leaves of slippery elm, which feels like a cat's tongue or fine grit sandpaper.
Once people start to notice the incredible variety of botanical form and flavor around them, their first reaction is often to become overwhelmed and confused. But once their senses lock on to a specific plant, they're unlikely to ever forget it, just as the face of a friend will seldom be mistaken for a stranger's, despite the thousands upon thousands of other people we encounter in our daily lives.
I'm a late-comer to botany myself, and can attest to the ways the plants have tapped into deeper and forgotten senses and "intuitions" as I came to learn them.
I grew up in New York City, and had little in the way of natural experiences as a child. I remember finding hawthorn thorns in the park with my grade-school friends and concocting a massive imaginary "drug ring" among our teachers, who were using the thorns as "needles" to "shoot up cocaine". Might sound bizarre, but it was the middle of the crack epidemic in New York, and when I was ten years old, I saw a lot more crack vials in the park than migratory songbirds or woodland widlflowers.
As a kid who loved dinosaurs and wanted a pet fennec fox, and as a young adult who majored in anthropology and history and was fascinated with peoples who lived in cultures that I now realize were deeply molded by their respective ecologies, I was probably primed to "fall in love with nature". But dinosaurs and fennec foxes, and the usual school fare of elephants and zebras and giraffes, were all at an impossible remove for a city kid. Most of my bookish fascination with nature had dwindled by the time I was a teen, and if you had asked me then how many species of birds or trees there were in New Jersey, I probably would have guessed ten-or-so -- but the question never even came to mind. Like most of my urban and suburban peers, I was working under the assumption that the nearby natural world was bland and mundane, comprised at best of squirrels, pigeons, deer, and some tall trees.
When Rachel and I moved out to the woods about seven years ago, it was an entirely new world for me. We moved into our little cottage down a dirt road in the Sourland Mountains in the beginning of the winter, as all the plants were going dormant. I stalked the winter woods, trying to figure out what the trees were from their winter bark. It was an impossible starting point for plant identification. I remember guessing that the majestic, wraith-like white-barked canopy trees in the forest were silver maples on the basis of color. Only in the summer did I find out that they were in fact white oaks.
Early in our residence that winter, a red-tailed hawk dove over our house screaming its addictively-timbred "Keearrh". A week later, I was walking through the forest and heard what sounded like a monkey. Looking up, I saw a gigantic black-and-white-and-red pileated woodpecker not forty feet above me calling from a tree trunk.
Just as I remember my first date with Rachel, sitting in a bar in New Brunswick and walking is dirty streets together, I remember these two close encounters with majestic and improbable birds as the moments when I fell in love with the natural world.
* * *
A few days before "pokeweed sauce", I took Beren up to the Musconetcong Gorge Reservation, a north-facing rocky-sloped preserve with perhaps the richest mesic forest plant community left in New Jersey.
Exuberant to be done with the hour-long car ride, he tore off down the trail on arrival. I watched him careen off rocks and roots and take a few spills even as I yearned to slow down and take in the black cohosh, wild ginger, sarsaparilla, false solomon's seal, horsebalm, red elderberry, beaked hazelnut, and much more.
Then something slowed him down. "What's this plant" he asked, the word plant sounding like "pwant" but the precision of the inquiry still surprising me--all this language suddenly spilling out from a quiet kid who had prioritized walking and running and jumping over speaking, developmentally.
It was a naked-flowered tick trefoil, a little legume with modest pinkish-purplish flowers on a naked stalk, its foliage on a separate stem nearby. Beren garnered that we were in a place that was different and special, and his running stopped again a bit further down the trail to ask about lopseed (an even less conspicuous herb) and then to venture guesses about the identity of clearweed (he thought it was jewelweed, which looks similarly succulent, but has different flowers and a different leaf arrangement).
We got to our putative destination, Scout Creek, and ate some purple-flowering raspberries streamside before clambering up slippery rocks and tiny waterfalls half-naked in the chilly mountain water.
On the way back up the trail, Beren was much slower and more subdued. I was relieved to be asked to pick him up for the most precipitous sections of trail. Once, he ran ahead, then stopped at a plant about his height. "Not nettles" he said of the coarsely toothed, opposite-leaved herb, and grabbed it.
"That's right", I called from fifteen paces back. "Could it be Joe Pye"?
"Joe Pye" he nodded, as he held up the purple-node Joe Pye weed for me to see.