This post is not a recipe, nor do I believe it has anything to do with gastronomic delights; however, I believe that the eyes need food of a special kind, so I share this with you!
Years ago, when my sister and I were growing up, our parents maintained a summer/vacation home about 45 minutes north of Green Bay. Although it was one of the first things to be sold and divided upon their divorce in our early twenties, I must say that it is missed very much still by both of us. The land was given to my parents by my maternal grandparents, and was just a small corner of the several hundred acres that they owned: some of it farmland, and the remainder fully wooded. During the summer, while we were on vacation from school in the city, we spent most of these warm days living there, my father joining us on weekends. Not only was it wonderful to be so near to our grandparents, (my grandmother being a wonderful cook and gardener of German heritage who taught and inspired me in many ways), but, for me, to be often within the immense forest that lay beyond the edges of the rows of corn. Our cottage stood at the gate between these two worlds, and I passed freely from one to the other.
During these solitary wanderings, I developed a great devotion and respect for nature that, I think, no school could ever accomplish. I was most fascinated by wild plants, and owned, at the time, two handy guidebooks for identifying them that I keep to this day. In fact, back then I would not leave the house without them at my side, so, each time we ventured up there, into the a small suitcase they went, along with a slew of other reading material, and, with freshly-cleaned eye-glasses perched proudly on my nose, and my sister with her collection of crew-cut Barbie’s, we all took off with our mother in our 1970’s Ford station-wagon, to stay at the cottage for a week or more at a time.
Within a few years, I knew every inch of ground within a half-mile radius of the cottage, which was sat on higher land and was accessed by a gravel-and-dirt road which ran along the corn fields from the main road. Surrounding two sides of the cottage was a dense stand of cedar trees, and beyond this the land rose higher until the trees parted to expose a clearing where milkweed, wild raspberries, black-eyed susans, and phlox grew. I liked to stop here for a bit: to tie my shoes or clean my glasses, to watch the sunbeams play lazily over the butterflies that gaily fluttered from flower to flower, or maybe to ponder a while. On the side opposite from where I’d emerge, the woods began again, here were deer paths that ran away from the clearing. They were easy to follow, and sloped steadily downward as they went onward and became cool and moist underfoot. New, strange plants emerged from the undergrowth here, the familiar plants of the meadows and roadsides becoming sparser, the dark, black earth more visible, until, if one dared go this far as I did, a glorious, shining, greener-than green sight appeared ahead: mosses covering rotting logs that criss-crossed in every way, forming a soft, crumbling matrix that exposed a pool of green water beneath. It wasn’t until I had obtained a pair of water-proof rubber boots that I could venture beyond vision into union with this place.
The mosquitos would have been absolutely unbearable without a spray-on repellent; still, they managed to follow me like tiny, watchful guardians as I explored. Spiders hang webs here wherever they can to catch this flying feast. To move from the still quietness of the drier part of the woods to this, seems like coming upon a secret caterwauling party in the middle of nowhere. Besides the constant humming of the mosquitos and flies, there were birds that darted and twittered, and frogs that leaped without warning and grew fat on easy meals. It is impossible in all of this activity, not to notice a large, noble plant with splaying green-yellow leaves the size of dinner-plates that grows here in this hidden chartreuse world- and not beyond it… They can’t be mistaken for anything but the peaceful rulers, keeping some sort of arcane order and solemnly praising the filtered green light that pierces this cloistered place and reflects from the pool back upward to make them glow all the more vividly from my shadowed view-point. It wasn’t until a few years later, during a summer workshop course in forest management, that I learnt of their common name: skunk cabbage.
They aren’t related to cabbages at all, in fact, they are related closely to arbi…..(“taro” as we in the states know them), and like them, are a member of the family Araceae- the Arum family. This particular plant is the only member of its genus, and is one of the oddest of plants in a family of odd plants. It flowers in early spring, before other plants have begun to grow, and even before it’s own leaves appear. Though the plant itself, at the height of summer, is not easily missed I can assure you, these early, short-lived blooms are known to very few who tread in wild places. The plant has the ability to raise its own temerature higher than that of the surrounding air, and in this way, is able to melt the layer of ice and snow above its roots to emerge and, with it’s single, maroon, hood-like flower, to lure carrion-feeding insects into it’s warm interior for fertilization. The whole plant exudes an odour not unlike garlic or hing when torn or crushed, and it is this that gives the plant its common name. Unfortunately, because the plant also has an extremely high concentration of oxalyte crystals- far, far more than the taro- the leaves must be air-dried for six months before it can be consumed; cooking the leaves thoroughly is not enough to neutralize this property, which, according to one wild-plant forager in re-telling his younger days, (when he added minced leaves to a pot of chile con carne and put it to simmer), caused an unbearable stinging sensation that had him rinsing his mouth for over a half-hour!
Edibility aside, the surreal blooming of a colony of skunk cabbages is a rare sight, and one that I have not witnessed in many years. Therefore, over this past weekend, I decided to wander about a nearby county park where, over the past summer, I had noted a few extremely sparse colonies of this amazing species of flora. I had to do a bit of searching through the low grounds of this gully-and-creek-divided park, but, in the end, I was not in the least bit disappointed for my snooping!
To any readers that got this far: [sung in my best Marilyn Monroe voice] Hhhappy Earth Day….. to you…hhappy earth daaaay…tooooooo yooooooou…..hhhaappy eeeaarrrrtttthhh daaaaay….terra firma……..Happy Earth Day, to you….