About Ari Rockland-Miller

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So far Ari Rockland-Miller has created 78 entries.

Twilight Hunt

Mushroom Signs 2

Wandering through chaga country with five-month old Eliana in the snuggly, we came across a group of older women hunting. But it was not mushrooms they were after – they were searching for a member of their hiking party. They said she was the oldest in their group, a very slow hiker, sporting a backpack covered in Green Mountain Club patches. ”She’s been all over the world,” her friends told us, “and she always carries plenty of warm clothes.”

The sun falling low, our little search party put on our forager’s eyes and set off in pursuit of a slow moving elder stateswoman. The forest was silent and still as we came upon our first sighting – not a woman or a mushroom, but a splash of color jumping out from the birch trees. ‘Bobcat,” read the sign, which might have been rather ominous were it not for the playful, smiling feline painted above the caption.

As it turned out, the trail was lined with signs featuring colorful creatures, including some denizens from the kingdom of fungi. We found a “destroying angel,” followed by a striking red “fly agaric” and a “sickening Russula.” We did not find any edibles. Whoever painted these signs must have been more interested in mushrooms of the poisonous persuasion.

We sauntered on through the deciduous woods, now leafless, stopping to admire a late-season flush of delicate enokitake before running into two of the women we had met earlier. They had broken off into smaller search parties, but their friend was nowhere to be found as the sun sank below the cliffs. “This is getting weird,” one of the women said. “This is really getting weird.” They called search and rescue, and a team was dispatched.

We exited the woods at dusk, our hearts heavy as we thought of this poor old woman having to face a night alone in the Vermont backcountry. But then, just after the mountain road met a paved thoroughfare, we noticed a tired traveler inching her way along, hugging the guardrail for dear life as car after indifferent car flew by. She was hunched under the weight of her heaping 1970s pack, with all those warm clothes she always carried, and a timeless array of Green Mountain Club patches to boot. We had found our woman.

It took her a few moments to get a grip on the situation, perplexed at the strange serendipity of this young couple, who knew her by name, finding her clinging to the guard rail and offering her a ride. I was riding in the back with baby Eliana, so the shotgun seat was wide open. It was meant to be.

Our new friend only had one regret – “I fear my friends won’t let me hike with them again,” she said, her voice trembling in the November night.

ForageCast: Mycelial Memories

Ari contemplating a parasol mushroom.

Ari contemplating a parasol mushroom.

Every October as the wild mushroom season nears its inevitable end, a feeling of desperation sets in as I scramble to get out and collect the last of the harvest. My approach to foraging, usually patient and calculated, becomes decidedly more frantic as I find myself sprinting from oak to oak, fueled by visions of a well-stocked larder. As I check each and every oak for a roosting hen, I envision Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with maitake and lion’s mane – the grandeur of the harvest illuminating the darkest days.

We have grown spoiled, numbed, by the fossil-fueled supermarket and its endless supply of mediocre and chemically-laden produce. Perhaps it is just a primitive reflex, a relic of my hunter-gatherer heritage, but as we enter October I am beset by an instinct to hunt, harvest and preserve before I hunker down aside the woodstove and sip on chaga tea.

Sometimes my late season hunts have been wildly productive – a matsutake revelation, a maitake on Main Street, a beech graveyard and a lion’s mane lair. Back in Ithaca, New York – hen and lion country – the sheer volume of the fall harvest could be staggering. We lived like mushroom kings, savoring cream of maitake soup and hosting tasting parties to share the panoply of fall flavors – earthy, nutty, buttery, fishy, fruity, floral, herbal, umami.

This fall I have been busy training a fledgling forager, one who has not yet graduated to solid foods but already gazes out at the forest with the whimsy of a woodland sprite. As I stroll down a sandy riverbank, past honeys, late-fall oysters and turkey tails, I am quiet and contemplative as I reflect on a year marked by the loss of one family member and the birth of another. The mycelium beneath my feet, a vast and enigmatic web connecting life and death, silently readies itself for winter.

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Fall Feast

IMG_2112With crispy autumn leaves underfoot and newly naked branches overhead, we took the little one to climb her first mountain. Winter is the longest season in Vermont, a sprawling and frigid affair, and autumn the most ephemeral. But when the leaves are peaking, and the harvest heavy, we are overwhelmed by abundance and undaunted by the coming cold.

After a prolonged dry spell, the recent rain will give foragers one last chance to find fall favorites like hedgehogs, yellowfoot chanterelles, matsutake, maitake, and lion’s mane. Even the most conspicuous fungi are hard to spot beneath the freshly fallen leaves, so the fall forager must rely on an intuitive knowledge of the landscape to guide her gaze. Subtle cues, from the age of the forest to the structure of the soil, can make the difference between an empty basket and a full frying pan.

I look at baby Eliana, riding in the snuggly with Mama, her wide eyes fixed on the canopy of beech. Those eyes seem to be absorbing everything, missing nothing. It occurs to me that a forager’s eyes are not unlike a child’s eyes, forever open and awaiting the next surprise. Foraging is, fundamentally, the art of seeing.

And even on this dry October afternoon, I see a cluster of lion’s mane on a downed beech right along the path. Just a little lion, but pristine and fresh, and accompanied by several others flashing their pearly white teeth. I leave the emergent pink fungi to ripen in the log’s cavities, and pick just enough for Jenna to make an all-local fall feast – pan seared chicken breast topped with poblano peppers and caramelized  shallots, served with a winter squash stuffed with lion’s mane and a side of roasted Brussels sprout tops. Behold the harvest!

ForageCast - 10-12-11

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Golden Hours

Golden Hours - Chanterelles

I’m eating black raspberries for breakfast, watching them turn from ruby red to a luscious purple as they ripen under the summer sun. Nothing summons memories of summers past like the blackcap – my favorite bramble. My tongue tingles as their zingy burst of flavor finishes with dark, mysterious cloves.

Papa LoveJust overhead, the staghorn sumac’s Dr. Seussian fruits are nearly ready for sumac lemonade. Completing the feast, wild alpine strawberries – compact bundles of strawberry essence – are ripening as the last of their cultivated cousins ferment in the fields.

The July sun is beating down as I wander beyond the periphery and into the damp forest. A destroying angel welcomes me into the woods, and my eyes begin to scan the ground for golden streaks. My yellow eyes are on, and they are finding me the season’s first fly agarics, ochre Russulas, and crown-tipped corals, along with a fragrant fistful of dense, bug-free chanterelles.

The colorful cast of summer fungi has arrived, and the woods are growing wetter and more alive with each passing thunderstorm. Baby Eliana Mina is here too, though for now she is spending more time in the bassinet than in the backwoods. Soon, she will ride in the snuggly and join us as we delight in the abundance of summer.

Northeastern ForageCast for the upcoming week!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Morels, with a Side of Arsenic

© Monica Donovan via 2013 photo shoot with Ari and Jenna

This proud forager has a confession to make – the closest I’ve come to a morel this spring was inadvertently stepping on a lone Gyromitra esculenta. It was a gruesome site, too – the convoluted, wrinkly flesh squished like a false morel pancake on the ground.

Up here in northern Vermont, peak morel season is only beginning. Veteran local forager Moore Mushrooms reported the region’s first black morel on May 7, but blondes are just starting to ripen this week. We were rained on heavily last weekend, and this week we have been blessed with the type of stunning, seasonal weather that summons morels and mosquitoes alike. Ramps are retreating, as Jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, trillium, and yellow lady’s slipper orchids bring sumptuous splashes of color to the sylvan stage.

But the big game is hiding in the shadows, at least for now. This is my third spring in Vermont, but as far as the morels are concerned, I am still a flatlander, a fledgling. I have an epic Vermont ramp patch, a chanterelle goldmine, even a riverside matsutake stronghold.

A good morel patch, however, can take years to find. Last spring I thought I had found my honey hole, a spectacular showing that made me feel like a morel millionaire. But as much as I love morels, I prefer them without a side of arsenic. My morel Mecca, it turned out, was uncomfortably close to a superfund site. And so it goes.

How does it feel, you might ask, to return your hard-earned treasure to the dank May ground? I submit to you that it feels better than suffering arsenic poisoning. While classic mycorrhizal fungi like chanterelles, black trumpets, and porcini tend to favor pristine woodland habitats, morels often pop up from disturbed ground. The well-known affinity of yellow morels for old apple orchards is particularly concerning. Fruit trees were routinely sprayed with lead arsenate throughout the 20th century, until it was replaced by the equally unsavory DDT in the ’50s and ultimately banned from orchards in 1988.

More research is needed to determine the extent to which morels and other fungi uptake heavy metals from contaminated soils. In the mean time, my quest for a pristine and plentiful Vermont morel patch continues.

ForageCast - 5-14-12

Northeastern ForageCast through mid-June!

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