On the seventh day of my apprenticeship at Prairie Gardens, I, along with Mackenzie, another apprentice, was told to collect some stinging nettle. Wear gloves, they said. I guess stinging nettle hurts, I thought. That should give you an idea of how much I knew about stinging nettle, in other words, pretty much nothing. I’d vaguely heard of the name in the past, but I had no idea why in the world we needed to collect a giant basin’s worth. I didn’t even know what it looked like.
Several minutes later, having received the required info from Tam¹, we got to work, snipping off the tops of the nettle and scouring the property for whatever we could find. Nettle can often be found in clumps near water – unfortunately, so can mosquitoes. For the third time that morning I applied another dose of bug spray.
The work continued for well over an hour as we hunted down all the nettle we could find. And hunt we did, precariously climbing over fences to reach the farthest regions of the property. We filled up a basin. Not enough, we were told. And back we went, balancing on chicken coops to get the nettle poking through the mesh – more bug spray needed. I finally experienced the nettle’s sting as one brushed against my leg (to confirm, it really does hurt). Finally, after collecting another half basin, we gave up. If there was more nettle to be found on the property, it was going to remain hidden. Besides, the morning was over and we had lettuce seedlings to plant and ground to till.
This is how the last few weeks have gone, broadly speaking. A task is assigned that I never imagined myself doing, and off I go. Challenging? Frustrating? Yes, occasionally, but this is how the process of learning works – by doing something new and exploring unfamiliar territory. Stinging nettle is just one of many examples of learning that I have experienced over this short period of time, and after spending those hours collecting it, being stung by it (twice), and then taking some home and cooking it, I’ll always remember how to identify and collect it, as well how to use it in food prep. Most importantly, my experience with stinging nettle is an example of how much is unknown to me in both the natural world and the realms of farming and foraging. I’ve undoubtedly seen nettle before, but it was just another plant then, with no distinguishing characteristics (unless of course, one happened to walk into it). But not anymore – now I am familiar with it, and my brain has classified it as useful information that I may use sometime in the future.
This week, with numerous projects on the go like weeding strawberry fields and picking and pruning tomatoes, I’m looking forward to what else I will discover.
- Tam – Tam Andersen, Owner of Prairie Gardens
— Eric Shapiro