Friday, July 2, 2010

Stalking the Wild

Stalking the Wild

Ah, the thrill of the chase. The anticipation of pursuit. Stalking the quarry, sneaking through the brush, the grasses, the thistles, the wild rose, warily parting the fronds and peering with expectation. My delight at spotting my prey.

Something of the pioneer courses through my blood when I venture forth to bring home the bacon, so to speak. It is hard to describe my satisfaction upon my return with larder for the pantry. I feel like a mighty hunter who evaded the wooly mammoth, outwitted the saber-toothed tiger and brought home the wild asparagus.

A couple weeks ago, while sipping a cup of coffee at the bakery in Chinook, I eavesdropped on men at the next table. They were telling tales of gathering asparagus along the river. I had had every intention of going for asparagus this year, but each day that I was available to go, the weather conspired to defeat me. It was getting late in the season. I was glad to hear that there might be some left.

When I was a child, I discovered a small stand of asparagus that grew on the bank of the Milk River near our house. I sat in the sand and ate the tender spears. Not one stalk made it to the kitchen. I was hooked.

Fresh out of high school and newly married, I moved to Dodson. Mary Tribby took me under wing. She lived in a small cottage across the road from the creek. To me, she was a wise woman, a crone of inestimable knowledge. She initiated me into the esoteric rites of asparagus stalking. She taught me how to see the above-ground clues to the close-to-the-ground bounty. While the dew still sparkled on the grass, Mary and I gathered a basket full of spears, blanched them, and bagged them for my freezer.

So I told my guests from out of state, “Today is the last possible day we might pick wild asparagus. I know a special place. Would you like to go on a hunt? But there is no guarantee we’ll find fresh game.” Within minutes we were on the road to Dodson. We parked along a side street. I led my guests to the wide banks of Dodson Creek.

“Here’s what we look for,” I said. I showed them the dried fronds from last years crop, parted the grasses beneath the old stalks, and noted where others before us had snapped off fresh spears. One dark green stalk, about two feet high, stood guard. It was much too woody to eat. It would scatter good seed for the future. I continued to rake through the grasses with my fingers and uncovered one lovely stalk, about five inches above ground, barely visible above the duff, light green in color with tight, scale-like leaves.

Once we had snapped off the first three asparagus, we ate them. My friends had never tasted fresh asparagus in the field. That was all the motivation these greenhorns needed. We separated and each of us combed a different section of creek bank. I know many fresh stalks were munched and never made it into the bag. Yet our end-of-the-season hunt yielded two huge messes of this lily-like vegetable. We left, satisfied with our haul. As a bonus, I took home two wool socks studded with cockleburs.

Back at the house we enjoyed a simple meal of steamed asparagus, lightly buttered with salt and pepper. My friends began planning next year’s hunt while I plucked cockleburs from my socks. They intend to return for opening day and bring appropriate field gear.

We who live in north central Montana have missed a vital commercial opportunity. Think about it. Annually outlanders come to hike our trails, shoot our elk, photograph our wolves, and toss dry flies at trout. So why not institute a designated “season” to stalk the wild asparagus. I can see it now. An entire new industry is born. The state issues licenses. Guides take the innocent hunters to the second best sites (saving favored stream banks for family). Towns vie to be named “Wild Asparagus Capital of the World”. Tournaments. Trophies. Hunting gear. Clothing. Caps. Tools. Art. Kitsch. Souvenirs. Toys. Recipe books. Maps. Brochures. Museums. Parades. Celebrations. Roadside stands. The possibilities are endless.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 24, 2010

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