Who am I kidding; did I really think I can do this? Of course, I love being outside. There is swimming and boating and gazing at sunsets and watching birds and fireflies and cooking marshmallows in bonfires. But wait. There are no bonfires or marshmallows at my Master Naturalist meetings. I thought we were going to get together and have some outdoor fun, gaze at a sunset, peer into nests, drink a few beers and talk about our last hiking adventure. It looks like they are asking me to do work. I think I’m now certified to do work! They want me to weed the forest, pull up undesirable trees, plant some plants… this looks like work to me! And it’s so hot! The sweat is pouring down my back. I never used to sweat when I was having “fun”. I would even brag about not being a person who sweats. Even dirt gets stuck on the sweat on my face and it looks like I’m engaging in jungle warfare. I can’t even go to the bathroom because my clothes are wet with sweat and stuck on me. And where are the bathrooms? Maybe I can still be a naturalist from some place that has air conditioners and bathrooms. I will try and scope out those places.
And what about my hair? No one told me that my hair would be a hazard outdoors. It gets caught up in every low hanging branch that manages to yank you back to point zero . How do you look cool as you detangle your hair from an American Holly tree? Just smile and act like you meant to do that. Maybe no one will notice. After that you walk around with a small stick in your hair that no one tells you about. It might as well be a log or a bone like Pebble Flintstone wears in her hair. Sometimes I find things in my hair and I don’t even know what it is. I guess as long as it’s not moving, I’ll be ok. Maybe I’ll learn how to identify it in one of my classes.
And then there are the bug bites. A warning would have been nice or even a recommendation for a spray of some kind. The last time I went into the woods I brought back a souvenir of 17 red bug bites. You know that it’s a red bug bite because it NEVER stops itching. The ones in the crotch itch more than all the others and are more intense when you are at a board meeting or talking to the police. Maybe we should have been studying all the hazards in the woods in our first Master Naturalist class instead of talking about how much “fun” we were going to have. Don’t you start learning about hazardous situations even in kindergarten like don’t step on snakes and poke wasps with a stick? Well I think learning that you should wear panty hose in the woods to prevent red bugs should be the first thing they teach you. Yes, that prevents red bug bites but only up to the point where the panty hose ends. Those bugs are smart enough to know how to crawl right past the waist band and feast on your stomach. At least scratching there is a little more presentable than your crotch. I’m hoping I can find a set of pantyhose that reaches to my neck, then maybe I’ll be safe from at least one of the many hazards that they are not telling me about.
Signed the UnNaturalist
If you’re like many cajuns, your summertime foraging consists mainly of blackberries and honeysuckles.
But if that’s all your shopping for when you go into the woods, you’re missing out on some of the best produce that Louisiana has to offer. Next time you’re out on a summer hike, keep a keen eye for these native edibles:
Note about responsible foraging: Follow the rule of one-fourth. There's an old saying, possibly Native American in origin, about ethical foraging: take 1/4 for yourself, and leave 1/4 for your brother (the next person), 1/4 for wildlife, and 1/4 for the plant to reproduce.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius)
The perfect mushrooms for those who like earthy flavors but hate squishy textures, the firm chanterelle mushrooms can be found in abundance in summer months. For some southerners, chanterelle season is almost as exciting as crawfish season.
The mushroom's slightly leathery texture holds well when cooked. For this reason, chanterelles are often used in sauces, and also combines well with meats (chanterelle and ground beef burgers are amazing).
It’s easy to find the bright orange mushroom clusters if you can stand a hot and humid Louisiana summer hike. They usually grow underneath oak trees, where they emerge in damp ground after downpours. Since the mushrooms don’t have a long shelf life, they aren’t usually found in stores or restaurants, so getting out and picking your own may be your only way to taste them.
Maypops (Passiflora incarnata)
There’s much to appreciate about a plant that not only has beautiful flowers . . .
. . . but that also have a delicious nectar-like fruit. Maypop, also known as purple passion flower, ripens in late summer. The green outer rind, which tears easily, contains seeds that have a papery flesh soaked in a saccharine jelly.
To find maypops, look for the bright purple flower along the forest edges. The climbing plant will often frill woodlands with its ornamental flower and sweet berries.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
If you like gumbo made from scratch, then be on the lookout for Sassafras — the plant’s ground leaves are where filé powder comes from.
But the goodness doesn’t stop with the leaves — roots from young sassafras trees are heavy and earthy, and make for delicious teas. In fact, for many years, Sassafras was the main ingredient in root beer.
Sassafras can be found in fields, in woods, and along fences, typically where the soil is moist. The trees are evergreen, and so can be harvested year-round. But if you’re making tea or rootbeer, your best foraging will be in winter or early spring, when the roots of young trees are full of sweet sap.
Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia)
The muscadine is like a grape but with a little more character.
Most people compare the fruit to grapes, but ripe muscadines have a plum-like skin and are sweeter. They also have a large seed within, and although many practiced foragers can practically inhale bunches of muscadines, newbies should practice wedging the fruit between the teeth and carefully biting down to release the juices. Of course, you could always opt to make a jelly instead.
Look for muscadines along fences and forest edges. You won’t be the only one looking — birds and mammals also love the sweet fruits, so sometimes wild muscadine can be hard to find.
By John Nettles
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The best experiences are not only entertaining, but also transformative. During the LMNGBR program, my perception of both the external natural world, as well as that of my own internal self, changed for the better.
Here is how LMNGBR improved my perspective:
1. I experienced the “Zen" of nature in a new way.
The natural world is composed of interconnected systems. Although people are accustomed to separating things with distinguishers like “big” and “small,” nature can challenge these boundaries.
Such was the case during the Mammals workshop at theWaddill Outdoor Education Center where we examined the large “macro” system of the forest, as well as the micro-systems underneath our feet. At one point, the guide had each group member cordon off a hula-hooped sized plot of land from one of the park’s 237 acres. In this small parcel, we were instructed to observe and identify the species within. It turned out to be too much to do in the allotted hour.
After getting eye-level with the bugs and grasses in the tiny plots, the group headed to the towering bottomland forest. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered if the gigantic forest is actually tiny speck to some large and wayward eye. Such a thought, I believe, is indicative of a heightened sense of grand awareness, which is elevating.
2. I learned to better appreciate the temporary.
We spend lots of effort in modern life controlling our environment. Often, changes in home or work life are bad news
But in nature, one cannot help but see the value of change. This truth is perhaps best exemplified in the Louisiana Trillium, a three-leafed flowering plant that is known botanists describe as a “spring ephemeral.” The designation means that the prehistoric-looking plant only pops up for a little while in the whole year. They are early bloomers, emerging in late January and disappearing in April.
When our LMN GBR group would encounter a trillium, there was always jubilation. We would gather to take pictures, and would connect through celebration. This demonstrates how the temporary is often a source of beauty, which brings people together.
3. I remembered that a key to happiness is exposure.
I like to try new things. But I have a tendency to stack the deck by trying things that I already know I’ll like.
As such, I may have never learned to like bugs, frogs, or fish as much if not for the Stream Ecology workshop at Blackwater Conservation Area. Here, you can see multiple types of water bodies in close proximity to one another, all of which are teeming with life.
In the shallow ponds, we saw countless of tadpoles and noisy frogs. On the banks of the nearby lake, we scooped up alien-like dragonfly larvae, crawfish and grass shrimp. Finally, in the Comite River that traverses the park, we got in waist-deep to catch river fish with seine nets, and we also searched along the banks for buried turtle nests.
It was easier to appreciate each creature and habitat by exploring in this manner. The result for me was a reversal of opinion on several slimy and scaly animals. In having my mind changed, I was reminded how easily negative perceptions can be affected by new experiences.
Sometimes, going out into nature can be an escape from modern life. But often, one can learn universal lessons by venturing away from paved roads, and apply these in everyday settings.
For some, the LMNGBR program may be simply a fun and educational experience, but others may take away even more. External exploration often leads to internal discovery, and we are fortunate to have such an adventurous program in Baton Rouge.
To learn more about the LMNGBR program or to enroll, click here.
By John Nettles