Thursday, May 29, 2008

The High, Wind-Blown Desert

The last two weekends we've made pilgrimages to the dry side of the mountains in search of sun and sustenance. Eastern Washington's high, wind-blown desert—known to ecologists as a shrub-steppe ecosystem—is a place torn asunder by belching volcanoes and biblical floods. The Columbia River Gorge and other desert canyons were scoured out by the periodic torrents of water released from prehistoric Lake Missoula, and the pumice littering much of the basin erupted out of the enormous crater of Mount Mazama. These scablands are now a place of rattlesnakes, wheeling raptors, and high blue skies in summer.

As with many desert canyons, you might be surprised with what you find down in the cracks and crevices at the bottom of the columnar basalt cliffs where spring freshets purl. These oases are rife with plants and birds. Western tanagers, black-headed grosbeaks, Nashville warblers, lazuli buntings, and numerous other neotropical migrants were not only common but seemingly fearless of our presence. More than once the birdsong was hushed by the shadow of a golden eagle gliding past, and we had a brief view of a hunting Cooper's hawk.

Along one trail we found enough shade and moisture to support a bed of spring beauties, Claytonia perfoliata—known as miner's lettuce for its use by "forty-niners" as a source of vitamin C during the California Gold Rush. What is it about wild foods that's so appealing to kids? (I have some ideas and will try to answer this question in a future post.) I watched my finicky, vegetable-averse boy eat his first bite of green in months.

This past weekend we camped in the Teanaway with hordes of other Memorial Day roustabouts. The amount of snow still hanging around is hard to fathom. Beverly campground at the foot of the Stuart Range was mostly snowed in, so we dropped down to the West Fork and joined all the rabble-rousers at the free timber industry camp: RVs everywhere, jacked up trucks, generators buzzing, the whole motorized American dream, complete with midnight dynamite blasts and gunshots. What a great country! Wonder how high gas prices will have to climb before this scene goes kaput.

In a selective logging cut we found these somewhat dry and stunted morels, about a dozen in all. After finding good quantities of morels a few days earlier, I was disappointed by our meager score. With the long winter, Verpa bohemica—the "early morel"—was still in play among the cottonwoods, meaning, sadly, the true morels were not up yet in the higher elevation bottomlands. Some folks eat verpas without ill effects. David Arora gives them a "not recommended" rating. But they're still fun to find:

The month of May has been an active time for this forager. Here at FOTL we've gone after tasty morsels of the sea and elusive delicacies on land; we've attended a Wild Food Adventure and eaten some excellent dinners (and lunches too!). Coming up in June will be more mushroom action with the peak of the morel and spring porcini season, along with a return to the water for a free-dive in pursuit of the toothy—and toothsome—lingcod.

But I shouldn't get too far ahead of myself: on the last day of May I'll be attending a NATS foray in search of spring white truffles. More on that soon.


Anonymous said...

Such tasty wonders. You've got me out foraging more than usual. Good blog!

WT said...

I heart the dry side.