The Milkweed Diaries

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wild Blueberries fresh from the Commons

Blueberries, and a few blackberries picked yesterday on Black Balsam.

Yesterday, we took an afternoon trip up to Black Balsam on the Blue Ridge Parkway to look for wild blueberries.

You never know when the wild blueberries will be ripe -- it's usually sometime in August, but you have to hit the right place at just the right time to strike a rich ripe blueberry vein. We had tried Craggy Pinnacle a week ago, but the berries were still green. This week on the Ivestor Gap Trail, we were in luck!

Kelly in the blueberry thickets.

I love foraging on public lands - it feels like a way to reclaim the idea of the commons, places open to all for shared use, and collectively stewarded for future generations.

Stewardship means that while it's fine to fill a bucket or bag with blueberries, it's not OK to dig up a blueberry bush, removing the plant from the ecosystem and depriving others of future blueberries. It's important to make the distinction between foraging for things like berries and wild mushrooms on public lands, which is great, and removing plants or animals from wild lands, which is unethical and often illegal.

A bit more scenic than a trip to the super-market.

Wild blueberries are a native plant, valued in many native traditions as an important edible and medicinal.

Recent studies have confirmed the nutritional value and health-promoting qualities of blueberries, and in recent years blueberries have become a trendy health food. Blueberries are often referred to as a superfood, packed with antioxidants, good for your heart, your brain, your eyes, and your gastrointestinal system, and cancer-fighters extraordinaire.

Luckily, they are also incredibly tasty!

I find wild blueberries especially delicious, and I believe that nothing can beat the nutrition of food growing in the wild, picked fresh, and eaten as soon as

As we picked yesterday, I kept thinking of Blueberries for Sal, a beloved children's book which my mom must have read to me and my brother and sister hundreds of times throughout my childhood.

We loved the story of little Sal picking wild blueberries with her mother, and her surprise encounter with a mother bear and cub who are also foraging for berries.

I remember picking blackberries with my brother and sister in our neighbor's overgrown pasture (an informal commons) and bringing buckets of berries home to my mom, who would make a cobbler from them. Mouthwatering memories of those cobblers kept me picking yesterday, and bolstered my willpower to put at least some of the berries in my bag, rather than straight into my mouth (this was a difficult task for Sal, too).

Sal and her mother processing berries.

Me processing berries.

Sal and her mother canned their blueberries, to eat all winter long. We will use 3 quarts of yesterday's haul to make a batch of blueberry mead--another, more ancient way of preserving fruit. We'll pick more over the next few weeks to freeze, and the cobbler extravaganza has begun using the remaining quart of fruit we gathered yesterday.

In the spirit of childhood nostalgia, here's my mom's cobbler recipe, with a few tips in her inimitable style (my mom's tips in quotes):

My Mom's Summer Cobbler

(can be made with blueberries, blackberries, peaches, or any fresh fruit)

Dry Ingredients:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs. baking powder "make them FULL tablespoons"
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 cup flour
Stir or sift dry ingredients together.

Once they are mixed, melt a whole stick of butter in a baking dish in the oven as it preheats. "Make sure it gets good and hot and bubbly."

As the butter is melting, add 3/4 cup milk ("or rice milk or half and half or whatever") to the dry ingredients.

Pour the batter over the melted butter. Then pour on 3 cups fruit "or whatever you damn well please" (the exact amount of fruit is not important).

Bake at 325-350 for 40-50 minutes until golden brown and slightly crunchy on top.

More on The Commons:

  • Here's a good starting point website on issues related to The Commons:
  • Here's an interview with Vandana Shiva which includes a discussion of the commons. "The commons and the recovery of commons is vital to earth democracy. It's at the heart of sustainability of the earth and democratic functioning of society." -Vandana Shiva
Originally, the term "commons" referred to lands and waters where anyone could forage, grow food or hunt. In ancient Rome and Britain, and in indigenous societies around the world, these shared inheritances were held in common rather than privately owned.

Among the generally accepted modern commons are public lands, the oceans and the atmosphere. But today, the concept of the commons has expanded to include commonly held systems, places and even ideas: community gardens, parks, public libraries, radio waves and herbal lore. Participants at the 1992 Earth Summit defined commons as "the social and political space where things get done and where people derive a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives."

. . .

Historically, conquering empires seized the commonly owned property of indigenous peoples for private profit. Here in Western North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation held most land in common until the U.S. government forced it to establish a system of private land ownership just 150 years ago.

Today, battles are being waged around the world over ownership of and access to water, land, energy, services and even genetic material. Ecologist Vandana Shiva points to a "series of enclosures" of commons in the Third World under colonialism, beginning with land and forests, then water and finally biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Seeds saved for generations and medicinal plants growing in the wild can now be patented by private corporations and sold on the global market. As privatization is imposed, the values that sustain commons as the center of community life are eroded.

This loss has had devastating ecological and social consequences. With multinational corporations and financial institutions like the World Bank leading the charge, what was once stewarded as common property is now plundered for private gain -- a major factor in the deepening global environmental crisis. And the enclosure of commons often happens at the local level.

You can read the full text of my article, which centers on the loss of a particular commons in Asheville, NC here.


Dana said...

I like your commentary that ties together a plethora of topics- all stemming from your blueberry picking trip. What a nice job you did flowing from a description of a fun late summer outing, to childhood memories, to shouting out to the beauty of our home terrain, and ultimately to a broader perspective social commentary about "The Commons," complete with several references to direct the reader to further information. Oh yeah, and you threw in a little historical context too. A blog post well written.
As you know, I too am a fan of foraging and wild foods. I do my foraging on both private and public lands. I have not explored the concept of The Commons much, so thank you for introducing this name of a concept to me. Well, I am off today to the Charleston vicinity, where hopefully I will enjoy the dynamic abundance of the Lowcounty Commons...

Garden Girl said...

Great blog and really appreciate the whole thing about the commons and blueberries in particular. We have picked berries in the blue ridge as well as in the mountains of New Hampshire, we also hunt for wild mushrooms quite successfully, getting free stuff from nature always makes me feel extra rich. And blueberries for Sal- a classic and childhood favorite of mine as well.