By: Joe Howell
Becoming an urban forager
I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. Having heard from newsmagazine editor Helene that the latest issue would be dedicated to food and drink, and having recently read several pages of Walden, it seemed a great idea to head as far into nature as the TTC would take me. There, I’d be self-sufficient for the day, subsisting only on whatever I managed to hunt or gather with my own hands, and recount the adventure here, alongside urbane yet soulless tales of cafes and bistros.
I settled on the Rouge Valley. Helene came with to keep the venture honest, and for good reason. I am a man of constant hunger—if my plane were crashing in the mountains like in Alive, I’d probably be chewing the arm of my seatmate before we even hit the ground. In order to prevent such a situation, we’d need some supplies.
First, we acquired an ancient book of edible plants in the Americas, which informed us that “young people in blue jeans who were on limited budgets revived the culinary art of the roadside.” Then we picked up a knife and a fishing rod at a Canadian Tire, where an old man whispered to us that spraying artificial minnows with WD40 would really get the fish a-bitin’. I love folksy wisdom, but unfortunately filling a river with engine grease didn’t quite seem in the spirit of what we were going for here. Helene was convinced that corn would reel them in, and so we justified the tin can of it we bought by resolving to rustically bash it open with a rock. It’s how Natural Man would have done it.
By now, it was midday. While we would surely be feasting on nature’s bounty soon enough, we had a long trip ahead of us through the wilds of Scarberia, and our stomaches were already growling. Okay, some fruit ‘n’ nuts trail mix bars would carefully simulate the smorgasbord we’d later scavenge. Of course, we’d have to wash them down with something.
I’d recently heard that elephants in Africa will eat the fermented fruit of the murula tree, in order to get a buzz going. This posed a variety of questions—do blotto elephants see pink humans? Elephants supposedly never forget, but what about when they’re black-out drunk? And could this even happen? Their tolerance must be huge. Truly, pachyderms are the frat boys of the savannah… but I digest.
We weren’t nearly as clever or industrious as those nobel beasts, but since we theoretically could get sauced in nature it didn’t seem like cheating to pack a bottle of Ontario white wine.
There was just the small matter of the five-alarm hangover I was nursing from the previous night’s murula fruit. Helene begrudgingly tolerated the pregame Gatorade and chicken paninis I insisted were crucial to my survival (come on, Thoreau didn’t set out for Walden pond hungry), but drew the line at the box of Oreo Sippers I tried to pack for later. “But they’re new!,” I argued in defence of the straw-shaped cookies. “And they’ll go great with pinot grigio.”
The Sippers were left behind, and the enormity of the sacrifices I’d have to make this day suddenly hit me.
A couple subways, a bus, a hot-air balloon, and a donkey down a cliff later, we were at the Glen Eagles Vista, overlooking the valley. We plunged into the untamed wilds, and found a welcome mat in the undergrowth. Clearly, we were expected for dinner.
We began gathering things our book had promised would make for good eating. Yarrow would steep some decent tea, so we filled my now-empty Gatorade bottle with it. Crabapples would be nice barbequed, despite their position as the grouchiest of fruits. Emboldened by our successful foraging, we became even more ambitious: these elderberries would go great with spare crabapples in a jam! We could make lousy candy from pine trees! Every darn shoot and leaf out here was delicious!
It turns out that when you first become a hotshot nature man, it’s easy to get carried away. Much of the flora takes extensive preparation, and the blazing sun coupled with a crippling Red Bull shortage can make you lose sight of this. To make matters worse, half of the plants out there are toxic.
That’s right, friends: nature hates us. As if the unrelenting typhoons and tidal waves weren’t enough, nature has filled her hills and dales with poison. While some sumac makes for a drink that “tastes like pink lemonade” (or so says our book), the wily poison sumac is “more virulent than poison ivy.” And while wild cherries sound pretty delicious, their seeds contain cyanide. Cyanide! I made a note that if we saw any, I could make some progress pruning my Enemies List.
Learning this fact about cherries scared me off foliage for a bit, so we left the hill and made our way to the river. It was quite a hike along the side of the road, but no cars would pick us up even though we were white and sober. It might have been the long knife Helene had demurely placed in her back pocket, business-end up.
We finally made it to one of the Twyn Rivers (who can tell ’em apart) and cracking open the vino, set about catching some fish to go with the crabapples. Wouldn’t you know, though—I drank on a rock in the water for over an hour, making as little noise as possible, shouting only when absolutely necessary, and I didn’t see one fish bigger than a minnow. No amount of industrial lubricant would have helped us catch supper here, because there was none to be had. We did see some crayfish scooting about, and Helene plunged in, catching one with her bare hands. She insisted the crawdaddy would be amazing fried in butter, but I wanted nothing to do with it, because I am not a barbarian. She let it go.
Now the sun was going down, and it was time to admit that we had nothing. I bit into a crabapple, and my eyes began watering. Nature had failed us. The earth had not provided for us, and in the waning light I could see that Stalin was right in scorching it.
Night had long since fallen by the time we made it back to the bus stop, and more importantly, its adjacent gas station. Inside we bought some Doritios® Late Night® All Nighter Cheeseburger® Flavored Tortilla Chips, and as I enjoyed the complex symphony of artificially simulated flavours, I thought “look what man hath wrought.”
Back at home, my roommate saw my fishing rod and asked what I caught. Upon hearing that we didn’t even spot any fish, Stevie said “welcome to the 21st century, bro.” You know what, though? I’m okay with that. The 21st century has brought with it bacon gumballs, Le Whif “whiffable chocolate powder,” and edible metallic spray paint, for giving your steaks that Midas touch. If declining fish populations are the price we must pay for not getting poisoned in the woods, so be it. O brave new world that has no fishes in it.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-inside/hoods-the-woods/.