AUGUSTA — For a forager, every season has its own energy and calendar.

The spring season starts with a rush and energy when the maple sap starts to run. The summer season is defined by the ripening of native berries and scouting for what’s coming up.

Fall is by far the busiest time of the year.

Michael Douglas can read that seasonal calendar, and he follows its cues.

Douglas is perched on a rough-hewn bench, one of three set around a fire pit at the Maine Primitive Skills School on Church Hill Road in Augusta, not far from the Vassalboro line.

The school’s mission is to teach and share outdoor education, nature literacy and field craft skills from its own wooded campus and a nearby, 4,800-acre wildlife management area, incorporating primitive skills, survival education and ancestral knowledge, among other things.

Mare Courtney, left, Jack Bittner and Owen Doll sniff and hold plants Sunday to determine what they are during a fall foraging class at the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta. Students from the around the country learn how to harvest wild specimens for consumption during the winter in the woods at the school’s campus. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Not far from the fire pit is workshop space where some of the foraged food, like wild rice and apples, are processed. Nearby, a flock of chickens is squawking its discontent at being penned up for the morning. And behind the fire pit is a stretch of woodland that falls away into more forest.

It is there where the weekend’s students, accompanied by the the school’s apprentices, have gone to search out and learn about specific plants — nettles, jewelweed, plantain and burdock — and their uses for making cordage, treating poison ivy or infection or adding to one’s diet.

In this pandemic year, during which many people are working to become more self-sufficient by cooking at home more and making bread, Douglas and the students are experiencing a more basic level of self-sufficiency by finding what they need in nature rather than in aisles of a supermarket.

In the waning days of September, the early apples are ready and, between the blueberries and acorns, wild rice is ready to be gathered. Maine has two species of wild rice: One that is native, another introduced to draw ducks to wetland areas.

“They’re both a joy to gather and process, and they’re nutrient-dense in comparison with the food that’s bought that they’re calling rice,” Douglas said. “Immediately you can smell it when you’re processing it and you smell the nutrient density.”

And when you eat that wild rice, it satiates you, he said.

“You’re not eating until you’re bloated and full,” Douglas said. “You’re eating until your body says, ‘That was good.'”

Sophie Belanger takes notes Sunday during a fall foraging class at Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta. Students from the around the country learn how to harvest wild specimens for consumption during the winter in the woods at the school’s campus. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Nature literacy is far broader than just knowing what plants, and animals populate the landscape. It is, Douglas said, understanding how all the elements fit together.

“So you’re driving 75 miles an hour on (Interstate) 95 and you see a dark spot out of the corner of your eye,” he said. “It’s tall, so 80% of the time it’s an eastern hemlock.

“It shows you where there’s water coming out of the ground. If it’s cool and damp in there, there’s going to be red squirrels, porcupine. If there’s rocky ledges, you’re probably gonna have fishers hunting in that area. The trees are like ambassadors — ‘I am a community elder and this is what I hold space for.'”

Nature literacy drew Sophie Belanger to the school this weekend from her home in Farmington. She is a nurse who likes to hike and backpack.

“I like to explore more of what it is that I am experiencing,” Belanger said, “or how to utilize the plants that are around me that I’m coming across. I see all these things and I’m like, ‘I wish I knew what that was.'”

Her interest stretched beyond just the knowing. Belanger said she is also like to learning more about foraging medicinal herbs.

“I love nature,” she said, “and I wanted to learn how to be more present in nature and not disrupt her.”

When she goes backpacking, Belanger is conscious of the things she is bringing with her. If she knows she can use the plants she encounters, that means she can shed some weight from her pack.

“So if I’m out there, and I get bit or stung, it’s good to know what plants I can use around me to heal myself from that moment,” she said.

Sophie Belanger, right, and Owen Doll excavate roots Sunday during a fall foraging class at Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta. Students from the around the country learn how to harvest wild specimens for consumption during the winter in the woods at the school’s campus. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

And the knowledge is something she can share with backpackers with whom she travels or meets on the way.

The school offers a variety of weekend classes, which are the most popular offerings for most people. Upcoming classes include knifemaking, essential nature awareness skills, reading deer track and signs, making a primitive shelter and foundations of survival.

Each season, the school offers an eight-week apprenticeship at the pinnacle of that season. In spring, students learn about the alewife run and how to catch and smoke the fish as it was done 500 years ago.

In summer, it is gathering medicinal plants and learning canoe skills.

Fall means being in the canoe to harvest rice, making bows and learning to hunt in a respectful manner.

Underlying it all is a sense of stewardship.

“There are two major things people have to accept if they want to enter this amazing world of wild foraging,” Douglas said.

One is that foragers are responsible for their actions, and the plants will treat them accordingly in the next year. If the plants are overharvested, they will not grow well in the next season.

“The landscape will tell you whether it was responsible, not your ego,” he said.

The second is that foragers have to resign themselves to the rules of the plants: They are bitter and they do not contain a lot of carbohydrates, but they are rich in nutrients, compared to many staples of the standard American diet.

“Out here, you have to slow down first to recognize the plants where they grow, then how you harvest them and prepare them,” Douglas said. “And in that slowing down, you read what your body needs more in the form of cravings.”


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