Jason is very easy to spot from afar. He kind of looks like Brad Pitt if Brad Pitt was Rastafarian: handsome, with a blonde, kinky beard, wire-rimmed spectacles and dreads that reach almost to the back of his knees.
Jason actually DOES follow Rastafarian traditions, despite his Caucasian heritage. He’s vegetarian and doesn’t cut his hair or drink alcohol. He’s also a herbalist.
I met him in downtown New Paltz. I had asked him to take me foraging, which he said he would do if a) I didn’t give the specific locations of any of his foraging spots and b) I helped him improve his Tumblr account. So this article is not going to be very location-specific. And I still have to help him with his Tumblr.
He had told me to bring long boots, but I didn’t own any or have access to a pair, so I instead wore my Tims. I noticed that he was wearing similar boots, unlaced.
We met in front of the library and immediately got down to business. Jason vaulted the fence protecting library patrons from falling into the street from the library’s elevated sidewalk, landing in two feet of snow on wall’s outer edge. He pointed to a four-foot crab apple tree. I grew up with a massive crab apple tree in my yard and had experimented with the fruit’s taste before. Did NOT taste as good as a normal apple.
However, as Jason explained, the crab apples become dehydrated during the winter as the tree’s moisture was sucked back into the trunk for safe-keeping. The fruits also become more sugary in the winter months, resulting in the berry-sized apples tasting delicious. Like dried apricots.
Jason has been foraging since 1996.
“I decided to start researching it, and I started reading Tom Brown Jr’s Field Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants and walking around with Peterson’s Field Guide so I could identify stuff.”
It being the middle of winter, there wasn’t an abundance of plant life. However, Jason has an encyclopedic knowledge of flora. He knew the biological workings and specific nutritional components of every species we passed.
Jason is so prodigious in his plant knowledge that he is able to fulfill all his caloric and nutritional needs through foraging. However:
“I don’t do a lot of foraging in the dead of winter, because it’s so cold…it’s not that there’s not stuff out there, it’s just so cold, a winter like this…last winter, the winter before, I was foraging all winter. When it gets below a certain temperature, I’m cooking sweet potatoes.”
He holds a small piece of fruit over to me to examine.
“We have a hawthorn here that tastes like strawberry jam on a good winter, but this isn’t a good winter, they kinda went bad…”
He hands me a Mexican Hawthorn instead. It’s delicious.
I ask him if he sells any of his foraged food to restaurants.
“I’ve done some selling to restaurants, but it never lasts. They can’t figure out what to do with it fast enough, and I keep telling them, and they never really take to my suggestions…it’s hard, you have to teach people one-on-one what to do with this stuff.”
Jason spoke of scary hydrocarbon pollutants and how they affect the brain.
“Unnatural Hydrocarbons are long-chain Hydrocarbons, which is why they don’t work in organic organisms, they just get stuck in the synapse gaps and stop the neural flow, because they can’t pass through, they just lay on the surface like a film and it causes the neural charges to ricochet and start to damage the Myelin sheet that protects the neuron.”
The coolest thing Jason taught me that day was how nature—and we—can combat this pollutant.
Run-off from highways is filled with Hydrocarbons, as well as other pollutants, such as sodium and Phosphorus. The latter two “can eventually cause desertification,” said Jason.
Before the advent of things like highways, a plant species commonly referred to as knotweed thrived in areas with recent volcanic activity. The plant grew in these areas because it needs large amounts of mineral salts — including phosphorous — to survive. Knotweed can now be found thriving near where roadways drain, consuming the phosphorous-laden runoff and stopping desertification.
The phosphorous-rich knotweed can be eaten to negate the effects of the Hydrocarbons found in the same runoff.
“…those long-chain hydrocarbons that get stuck in your neurons…the way that you dismantle those and also rebuild the lining of the neuron is with phosphorous, because phosphorous is the insulator for neural conductivity, and also like soap, and so it’s able to scrub [out] those long-chain hydrocarbons.”
Even as we destroy nature with things like phosphorous-laden runoff, nature finds a way these pollutants can be utilized. And if you know enough, you can use these same plants to repair what pollution has done to you.
We next rode to a farm a few miles across the Wallkill Flats. Jason knew the owner of the farm, and they were allowing him to tap their maples.
We had to complete a significant slog to actually get to the trees. Unfortunately, the fluctuations in temperature had shattered the glass collecting jar.
The ultimate MacGyver, Jason stripped the duct tape off the glass shards and was able to fashion a Poland Spring bottle from my car into a new collection receptacle.
We trudged through the snow, Jason pointing out the natural history of every plant we passed. We came to the farm’s ‘hoop house’ — an uninsulated greenhouse—which had apparently recently been designated as sleeping quarters. There weren’t any plants in it. Jason was not pleased.
“I could run the hoop house while living in here, and then it would have multiple functions for maintaining the heat. But they’re doing an either/or situation, which is the problem with humanity. It’s always either/or, people can never synergize multiple needs, it’s always like the needs bump each other out of the way.”
Jason gestured to a spot on the hoop house’s dirt floor where the farm’s dogs had been digging.
“They have an herb farm, and they have a ton of dogs. Those things don’t go together…it’s a deterrent from having things growing here. If they didn’t have the dogs, it would be a perfectly symbiotic environment.”
“Dog are so CUTE, though…they’re man’s best friend,” I argued.
“The reason why they’re man’s best friend is because it helps man get his food source, which is dead animals, but if your product is not dead animals, you might have to reroute your entire cultural apparatus to accommodate the fact that you’re an herb farmer and not a hunter.”