June 3, 2016

Foraging on 'hell with the fire put out'

From the sea, volcanic Ascension looks like it might still be smouldering. As the big swell explodes on the lava flows it’s easy to mistake mist for steam. Inland, it’s all cinder and rubble surrounding some 40+ volcanic craters. Someone once described it as ‘hell with the fire put out’. There is water, but prior to the desalination plant, every drop had to be carefully managed. The cisterns, one with the name ‘God be thanked’, are still found on the sides of the road with their pipes snaking to the settlements around the island.
 It’s not the kind of place you expect to find a lush forest, but thanks to a visit by Charles Darwin (who described it as an arid treeless island with a few goats, sheep and donkeys running about) and the ingenuity of botanist Joseph Hooker, there is a forest here—one that has a lush and ancient feel to it.

The plan was to bring trees to Ascension from all over the world. Starting in 1850, ships brought plants and saplings from botanical gardens in Argentina, Europe and South Africa. Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, yew, flowering vines, wild raspberries and banana trees now thrive in the world’s most unlikely forest.

It was the promise of raspberries and bananas which convinced us we couldn’t miss Green Mountain. Most days, the mountain has been shrouded by the dense clouds that Darwin envisioned when he dreamed up the plan, but on the morning we went up, the peak was clear.

We drove up past a lava flow and through a desert of mesquite and prickly pear (both were introduced about 50 years ago and are spreading more quickly than expected…). Then elevation took us into a eucalyptus forest straight out of Australia. When we hit the bananas, the fertile jungle-feel was complete. There were also coffee bushes, guavas and gooseberries, but we had our eye on those ripening stalks.

a feral sheep stalks the wild banana

Maia helped us search out the perfect bunches—braving the wild sheep, fluffy bunnies and steep slopes. Her main goal was to find the much-mentioned raspberries but they were higher up the hill—and bananas came first.

The raspberries are seedier and tarter than the familiar soft English berries. To us, they taste more like Salmon berries from home. But coming from a place that marks out the summer season by which berry is ripe—there’s something elemental about the fruit. It’s one of the foods we miss the most.

Maia was coaxed along a hiking trail with the promise of more berries on the route. The raspberries didn’t grow abundantly—but between them and the view she was content.

Later—when she returned home with the berries and bananas—a boat from the US freighter stopped by to offer up some surplus apples, cookies, chocolate and (rather delicious) ham sandwiches. Being in a foraging mood (and knowing how depleted the grocery stores are) she accepted the seemingly odd gift in the spirit it was given.

Foraging is a time-honoured tradition in the maritime world. The first sailors to islands like this dropped off goats and planted fruit saplings to help feed the crews in their wake. The tradition has had many missteps (we've managed to wipe out more than a few endemic plants and animals) and over time we've learned a few skills. But in subtle and important ways the belief that sailors should always leave something behind that will nourish those who follow is one we still hold dear.

1 comment:

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