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Russ Cohen likes to taste as he walks. Indigenous peoples showed him the way

MONTEREY — Corn, squash and other Indigenous foods are common in the diets of New England residents. However, the region also offers a bounty of other edible plants, as well as those with medicinal properties. 

To raise awareness about these wild edibles, Russ Cohen, a naturalist and wild foods enthusiast, led a recent walk around the Bidwell House Museum. The Bidwell House, an 18th century property built for the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, has since become a museum that tells the story of the early settlements, as well as of the Native Americans who lived on the land.

Vivian Orlowski, program director of the Housatonic Heritage Operation Pollination Program, co-organized the Sept. 15 walk along the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She said these events broaden understanding of the natural world.

“Cohen always makes us conscious of the larger environment and how these plants relate to their surroundings. I think that's something that we can all benefit from,” she said. “We tend to be a very focused type of culture. It's important to understand the context for systems thinking and that we're not distant from this world.”

WILDEDIBLES-4.jpg

Russ Cohen holds up two examples of the edible Canada mayflower, also known as false lily-of-the-valley, during his "Wild Edibles" walk for those interested in learning more about foraging in the Berkshires at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. 

As the event began, Cohen passed out a list of 150 edible plants. Though all can be found in the Northeast, not all are native to the area. Native species, however, have a good amount of representation on the list, according to Cohen.

Nature hides many surprises from the untrained eye. Take for example the non-native spotted touch-me-not, also called jewelweed. The flashy yellow flower explodes if you touch it, so in order to collect the three seeds inside, which taste like walnuts, you must grab its long green capsules from the back and place another hand in front.

person holding paper titled The Honorable Harvest

A list of rules, akin to the "commandments" of foraging, called "The Honorable Harvest" by author Robin Kimmerer, is passed around before Russ Cohen’s "Wild Edibles" walk at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. 

For those who want a natural breath freshener and pain reliever, Cohen recommends scratching and sniffing a twig from a yellow or black birch tree. 

“If you're hiking in the woods and you twist your ankle, you could find a black or yellow birch tree to chew on. At the very least it would distract you,” he said.

Cohen has led these walks for 50 years and is the author of the book “Wild Plants I Have Known and Eaten.” Since 2015, he has operated a nursery near Weston, where he grows native plants to give away to land trusts, cities, tribal groups, farms and others so they can plant them.

“My hope is that the public will be able to interact with them,” he said.

He first learned about wild plants in high school and went on to the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, where he worked from 1988 until 2015, according to his LinkedIn page. He has spent time in the Berkshires, carrying a basket while he walked along the Housatonic and the Hoosic rivers, taking his findings home for further study to add to his encyclopedic knowledge of foraging. According to Cohen, much of what is known about edible native species and their preparations is owed to Native Americans. 

“Boy, am I grateful that they figured that out. So the rest of us don't have to walk down a trail, pop plants in our mouth and see what happens,” said Cohen.

woman in hat smells branch

Participants pass around a branch from a black birch tree to smell the spearmint-like aroma of its bark.

According to Cohen, taste can be a good way to determine if a plant is safe to eat, though this does not apply to fungi like death cap mushrooms, which can taste delicious yet be deadly. Poisonous plants, however, usually taste terrible.

“If you're pretty confident you've got the right thing, just a quick little taste is going to confirm [if] it's the right thing or not,” said Cohen. “If it's not good, spit it right out. The worst that could happen is that you feel nauseous."

Cohen says two important lessons people can learn from Native Americans, in regards to foraging, is forbearance and restraint. 

"It's how to treat the plants with respect and not pick too much,” he said.

jar of birch twig tea outside on table

A tea made from black birch twigs awaits the group’s return after Russ Cohen’s "Wild Edibles" walk for those interested in learning more about foraging in the Berkshires.

He does not regard foraging as a way to get nutrition. Wild plants only make up 10 percent of his diet. “It's a fun complement to a conventional diet rather than a substitute for regular eating,” he said. Instead, foraging is his way of cultivating a different relationship with the natural world.

“It's like having old friends come and greet you as you walk along," he said. "I already like being outside. Knowing what you can nibble on just makes it that much more interesting."

Rhonda Anderson, western Massachusetts commissioner on Indian Affairs and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center in Ashfield, thinks climate change makes it more urgent to learn about the environment.

“There is a particular knowledge that can be learned from the original stewards and caretakers of the land on how to take care of the land in an appropriate way and how to prepare for climate change and climate disaster,” she said.

Anderson, who is Iñupiaq-Athabascan from Alaska and an herbalist, highlighted the importance of listening to the land as a first step to create change. The walk, she said, was an "opportunity to be an active listener." 

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez can be reached at aalvarez@berkshireeagle.com.

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