Here in the highlands of Nova Scotia, spring is just starting to happen in earnest. And one of my favorite parts of “earnest spring” is the fresh vegetables after a long winter. So yesterday I set off to the west ridge of the Hollow, the mountainside that encloses the Hollow to the west and north. We are near the top of this old, low Appalachian mountain already so the ascent is only a few hundred feet. Up there grows a rare treat that appears only briefly at this time of the year. I’ll tell you about it a bit later. But, in truth, any excuse is a good excuse to disappear into the old forest for the day.
As always, I was watching for the progress of various wild vegetables. Until our gardens come in, we are pretty dependent on these traditional foods, and with the root cellar’s stock of fresh greens gone since January, we’re all looking forward to fresh greens. I took the hidden path north from the cottage and crossed the Firefly Brook at stepping stones I placed in it years ago. Often I harvest mint and Virginia waterleaf down there, but they are not up yet. However, at the edge of the hedge I did espy wild carrot greens sprouting. They come up early and are cold resistant, and I am looking forward to a good harvest of wild carrot tops in a couple months. But that didn’t help us with our desire for spring greens.
Willowisp accompanied me and we hiked beyond the Elfwood which is our name for the young forest that occupies most of the west half of our land. Beyond lay the much older, haunting mature forest of the Rusalka Wood. I was hoping to find spring mushrooms such as dryad saddles but it’s a bit early yet. Nevertheless, about halfway up the brae, we found an enormous chaga–some forty pounds–growing fifteen feet up a birch which I knocked off with a hefty log. Then I continued to the deep forest at the broad, flat top of this old mountain.
There I found the delicate plant which drew me into the Rusalka Wood up the brae today. Near the Hobgoblin Spring I found large clusters of these, growing best where they could catch the sun from dawn til dusk. These ephemerals appear only briefly, perhaps for two weeks, after the last snow vanishes. They have a light vegetable flavor, something like lettuce but without any bitterness, and a slight sweetness reminiscent of carrots and asparagus. I picked a bagful, enough for salad for us all tomorrow, with onions, young dandelion greens and sheep sorrel.
Turning east I hiked in the direction of a spring so my dog Willowisp could get a drink. I call it the Hobgoblin Spring. It is remote and has a calm, enchanted feel. Not only does the spring offer the profound silence and gentle music of a water garden, but nearby grows this extraordinary tree that is determined to become a weasel.
We began to hike out when I espied a small chaga, perhaps five pounds. I harvested it and dropped it into my daypack. Because I was rapidly losing the light, I took a bearing with my compass in order to aim for a shortcut that has no trail, and we continued on. But after covering some distance, I came across another extraordinary growth of chaga, and as no lichen was emerging from it, I knew this one was fresh. I could not pass it up. I always carry a hefty knife and good hatchet or a small knife and forest axe when venturing into the deep woods, and it’s a good thing because I needed both to pry this chaga off the tree. Fresh, good chaga hangs onto its tree with an iron grip. A dozen precise blows with the hatchet at the point where it joined the tree got the main growth off, a huge piece weighing about twenty-five pounds. With the bowie, I carved off most of the bright orange-yellow mycelium still clinging to the trunk while the birch bled minty, clear sap which I sampled as I worked. Birch sap is delicious! I do not worry about injuring the birch. Chaga is parasitic and the tree is better off without it. But whenever you see chaga growing on a tree, your’re just seeing the fruiting body of mycelium that runs all under the bark everywhere. Another chaga will sprout from this tree in another few years. Eventually, the chaga will kill the tree, but it could take decades.