Posted by: Barbara Evanhoe | March 1, 2011

Off the Grid ~ Part Two

Survival, and the skills necessary to accomplish the task, is a huge topic. There are countless books on the subject, and even TV shows like, “Survivorman”, that explain how to live in extreme situations that would definitely fall into the “Off the Grid” category.

My interest in survival was fairly straightforward. My goal was to learn some basic skills that would serve me well should I ever have to fend for myself with few, if any, tools or supplies.

For a number of years in the 1990’s, I belonged to the Walnut Valley Muzzleloaders, a group of historical re-enactors who ~ when attending “Rendezvous” ~ dressed and lived “as if” they were in the Fur Trade, or Mountain Man eras of the early 1800’s.

Family Photo ~ 1991

The original Rendezvous were annual summer gatherings in the Rocky Mountain west, where trappers traded their pelts harvested the previous year, for supplies to get them through the next season of trapping.

Our Rendezvous were usually weekend events, during which we set aside modern conveniences, dressed as trappers or traders or Native Americans, and lived  in canvas tents or tipis.

Our Home Away From Home

We cooked over open fires started with flint and steel, competed in black powder rifle and pistol shooting and tomahawk throwing competitions, or shopped at traders’ tents for necessities like wool blankets, candles, fur pelts or deer hides.

We also learned useful things like how to identify edible and medicinal wild plants, or make torches out of mullein stalks. It was a wonderful blend of camping, dress-up and Survivorman, and everyone had a wonderful time ~ especially the children.

I learned to be fairly competent at taking care of myself in a semi-wilderness situation, although I must admit I never was as good a shot with a muzzleloader, as some of the other women in the club.

My favorite thing to do was to explore the prairies and woodlands for edible and medicinal plants. It was – and is – important to me to be able to locate a plant that could fill my belly or help stop bleeding, if I were in a situation where food and medicine were unavailable.

My interest started with Euell Gibbons’ book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, published in 1962. I was fascinated with the idea of foraging for food in nature’s supermarket. I did a lot of reading before I actually began to explore on my own, and to prepare and consume things I’d foraged.

I spent so much time watching the roadsides for tasty morsels while I drove, that, one day after stopping repeatedly to pick sand plums ~ my children said they would just get out of the car and walk home if I stopped one more time! Point well made – we didn’t stop again…that day.

As it turned out, the children could be more courageous than I was when it came time to taste-test a foraged creation.nI had read that common milkweed was edible, when the clusters of green buds look like broccoli, before they flower or turn to milkweed pods.

In Kansas, this usually happened in June. When the time came, we took a trip to a milkweed field I had been keeping an eye on, picked a big batch of the clusters, and took them home to make milkweed fritters.

It was a bit of a task to prepare the milkweed. First you par-boil them twice to remove the bitter-tasting milkweed sap. Then, after preparing a batter, you dip the clusters in the batter and fry them. The batter puffs up and turns golden brown, and I have to admit that they looked pretty good, piled high on a plate in the center of the dinner table.

The whole family just sat and stared at them. Not a single person jumped in to give them a try. Suddenly, my youngest daughter piped up in her small child’s voice…”I’ll try them, Mommy”. And she did, bravely biting into a fritter while everyone else watched to see if she would live or die:) She chewed, and swallowed, and said they were good, and that they tasted “green”.

Not to be outdone by my child, I picked up a fritter, took a bite, and knew exactly what she meant. The milkweed didn’t taste like anything other than a vegetable – much better than broccoli in my opinion – and the fritter batter made it taste great. Most of the family gave the fritters a try, but I do seem to recall that one or two picky eaters decided it was too much of a stretch.

That year we experimented with Elderflower Pancakes, and Lemonade made from sumac berries. We also tried our hands at dandelion and elderberry wines. (We figured if we had to live off the land, we needed adult beverages in addition to food!)

At that time, I had an old friend named George, who had been raised by his grandmother in “the old ways”. He was a wealth of information on what to do with all sorts of plants, and I loved to spend time with him, driving down the back roads in his yellow VW bug, in search of something new.

That man had eagle eyes, and when he spotted something, he would step on the brakes and holler “Get Out!” We’d extract ourselves form the tiny car and trek through a field to see what he saw. Then, he’d pick a leaf or a stalk or a flower and say “Eat this”, or “Smell this”, or “Rub this on your arm”, and explain about the plant as I was experiencing it. Stinging nettles weren’t any fun, as their namesake implies, but they make a tasty dish when the “stingers” are cooked off.

With those successful experiences behind us, we were ready to move on to the medicinals, like mullein salve. Mullein is a beautiful plant that grows profusely along railroad tracks in Kansas, and has tall stalks of tiny yellow flowers in its second year.

George and I picked a basket of the large, soft leaves, and took them home to make a salve.

We put the leaves in a pot of water on an outdoor fire ~ as the cooking mullein does not smell that great ~ and left the leaves to cook and cook, until the water had all but cooked away. What was left in the bottom of the pot was a thick, dark, liquid that we mixed with Vaseline and citronella (to make it smell good).Voila! We had mullein salve.

The salve didn’t really look that pretty, and there were bits of the mullein suspended here and there in the salve, but I can tell you, it sure does work! I’ve used it on all sorts of cuts and sores, and a friend who raises horses said it healed his horse’s foot better than anything he’d seen.

It’s been many years since I’ve been foraging, consumed milkweed fritters or sumac lemonade. I’ve carried the winemaking with me through the years, though, and last year’s batch of dandelion wine was superb.

Keith and I have almost finished it, and will soon be ready to move on to the Elderflower wine that we made from the elderberry bushes at our Ottawa, Kansas, home shortly before we started out on the road.

One thing I can say, is the survival skills I was exposed to  through the Rendezvous experience, are still with me today. I learned them, practiced them, and tucked them away for a rainy day that I hope will never come. But, if it does, I am prepared to dust them off and make a go of it.

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