Samara Leavitt Haines picks wintergreen berries Sept. 17 to snack on during a Delta Institute of Natural History foraging class in Canton. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

CANTON — Bear fat biscuit?

Yes, please.

This soft, whole-grain treat (made with spelt milled onsite and served with local farm butter) is one of the delights of wild food foraging.

It’s not all about fiddleheads and dandelion greens. At the Delta Institute of Natural History on a recent Sunday morning, students were learning how to process wild rice.

The institute is run at the home of Arthur Haines, high up a dirt road on the side of Thorne Mountain.

Wild rice grows in Maine marshes, Haines said, as Kathleen Kippen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, treaded on a basket of rice to remove the chaff.


Kippen said she took the class because she wanted to broaden her knowledge of wild food foraging and pass that knowledge on to her children.

Arthur Haines parches wild rice over an open fire last week during a Delta Institute of Natural History foraging class in Canton. Haines harvested the rice from the Kennebec River drainage area by canoe. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “We found plants and we’ve had delicious food.”

The food served over the weekend-long class included wild turkey stew, wild greens, acorn flour pancakes, bear roast with homemade apple chutney, wild rice, wild mushrooms, and moose stew.

Kippen was treading on wild rice in a basket lined with naturally tanned buckskin — wood ash was used to make lye for removing the fur and deer brains were used to soften the leather. The hides grab the rice and loosen the chaff, Haines said.

Once the chaff was loosened, it was time to winnow. Haines used a paper birch basket to

Arthur Haines prepares to parch wild rice with his class of students at the Delta Institute of Natural History in Canton. Haines harvested the rice from the Kennebec River drainage area by canoe. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

demonstrate tray winnowing.


“Even if it’s perfectly dead calm, you don’t need the wind,” he said. “What people think I’m doing is throwing it up in air, but I’m actually throwing it down. Every time I throw it down, there’s a puff of air that gets all the really light chaff to blow away.”

Haines also demonstrated drop winnowing, which uses wind. This process involves tapping the birch basket to drop small amounts of rice into a larger basket.

He said the “funnest part” is foraging for the rice in open marshes. “You see a lot of wildlife out there.”

Students also were learning how to make carrying bags from jute, natural fiber native to India that can be twisted into strong threads. They tied the strands into knots to make bags for gathering wild edibles.

Sam Thompson of Dover, New Hampshire, was working a strand. He said this was his second time at the institute. His reason for coming was simple.

“I’d like to live like this,” he said.


Student Jess Musielak-Hanold of Gray said she had attended a spring foraging class two years ago.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I learned a lot more about the plants around me. We made baskets for gathering berries and autumn olive, wild leeks, fiddleheads. It gave me a sense of place, a connection.”

She came back for fall foraging. The class so far had gathered groundnuts, high-bush cranberries, autumn olive and tuberous sunflowers, said cook Kelly Farris. Tuberous sunflowers are also known as sunchoke — and misleadingly known as Jerusalem artichokes.

Sunchoke Web image

“That’s very wrong,” Farris said. “They’re not from Jerusalem and they’re not artichokes.” In fact, they are native to North America.

Students also learned how to process acorns into flour, she said.

Haines’ 10-year-old daughter, Samara, summarized the process: gather, dry, crack into splinters, grind into flour, leach out the tannins in water (12 days if decanting, two days if doing continuous watering).


“Acorn flour pancakes are my favorite way to eat it,” Samara said. “They’re really yummy.”

The pancakes were served for breakfast Saturday, with homemade maple syrup, granola and yogurt, Farris said.

Haines’ final lesson of the weekend (before a lunch of moose stew and bear fat biscuits) was on medicinal plant tinctures. He uses the folk method, he said.

He had made a tincture from ghost pipe (formerly called Indian pipe), a waxy-white, single-flower plant native to North America, northern South America and Asia.

Students make fiber bags from jute fiber during a Delta Institute of Natural History foraging class in Canton. From left are Peter Bronson from Mount Desert Island, Kathleen Kippen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Jess Musielak-Hanold of Gray and Julian Moran of Portland. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

He harvests them when they’re flowering, dries them a bit, then puts them in jars and covers them with 40% organic alcohol, such as vodka or gin.

He advised the students to turn their jars upside down every couple of days and back up again in another couple of days to make sure all the plant material gets covered with alcohol.


The resulting tincture is dark purple.

“This medicine is anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety and analgesic,” Haines said. “The Cree used it for tooth pain, which can be absolutely crippling.”

He recommended doses of a half to a full teaspoon three to six times a day, depending on how acute your symptoms are.


Haines is a botanist with a graduate degree in plant taxonomy. He has more than 30 years of experience teaching, writing, and publishing works on foraging and botany.

A native of the small town of Avon in the western Maine mountains, he spent a lot of time in the forests and along lakes and rivers.


“Edible plants were something I was always interested in as a way to better enjoy our time in the wild and spend even more time out of the home,” he said.

Autumn olive Web image

He said that as an adult, through research, he came to understand that the foods we eat (cultivated) and the foods we gather (wild) are far from similar.

“The wild foods are much more nutrient dense and help to protect against chronic disease in a way that cultivated/industrial foods cannot,” he said.

Hunter-gathers around the world living on their traditional foods were remarkably resilient to chronic disease and showed a near zero incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, strokes, depression, periodontal issues and cancer, he said.

He said humans are simply not consuming their biologically normal foods.

“Plants have been and continue to be immensely important to people,” he wrote in a blog on the Delta Institute website. “They provide food, medicine, materials for shelter, fuel for heating dwellings and cooking food, fibers for cordage and clothing, wood for tools and hunting weapons.”


But contemporary people no longer know how to find, collect, and process these materials, he wrote.

“Not only has this led to populaces that are entirely dependent on agribusiness and manufacturers, but it has also removed people from direct participation in the circle of life.”

At the institute, students, guests and family forage for nearly 75 plants each year, Haines said.

Arthur Haines hunts with a bow and arrow. These particular arrows were made by a friend of Haines. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“Some foods are ingested on the spot, some are brought home to eat, others require work (like acorns and wild rice) to get them to a stage of consumption after they have been gathered,” he said.

Favorite wild edibles include ostrich fern fiddleheads, northern wild rice, acorns of various species of oaks, wild leeks, maple syrup, blackberries, shadbush fruits, white goosefoot greens, black cherries, groundnuts (a legume), cattail pollen, and wood nettle shoots and greens.

Haines estimated that 50% of calories consumed by his family come from the wild.


The risk of poisoning, which is what most people are worried about, he said, poses only a slight danger.

“We have a long history of co-evolution with plants, and we often have warnings when we are ingesting something we shouldn’t (for example, extreme bitter or acrid taste).”

And if we do eat something toxic to us, our bodies often eliminate the material quickly through vomiting or diarrhea, he said.

“Yes, misidentifications have happened, and people have died, but these are very, very infrequent and we just hold onto these stories, and it keeps us from eating wonderful and nutritious food,” he said.

He said that many of the common plants consumed by people in this state are easy to identify and are consumed by thousands of people every year without issue when handled properly.

Groundnut plant Web image

“Take a species like the ostrich fern, which is consumed in the fiddlehead stage,” Haines said. “It sometimes causes (intestinal) issues when we don’t cook them long enough.”


The real danger, he said, is to the plants.

“They are the ones at risk of overharvest or neglect,” he said, because if people don’t eat them, they don’t understand their value and are willing to let wild areas be converted into housing lots and retail development.

Regaining the old knowledge of plants can foster a connection between people and their local landscape, he wrote in a blog on the institute website.

“When people are involved in local ecology, they become champions for conservation and voices for the ethical treatment of the organisms we share this Earth with,” he wrote.

“This is a natural outcome of people realizing that wild things are necessary for a sustainable, healthy, and rewarding future.”

Sam Thompson of Dover, New Hampshire, makes a fiber bag from jute fiber during a Delta Institute of Natural History foraging class in Canton. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

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