Camp Hygge

The kids and I slipped away for a little “Camp Hygge” time beside the river this week. We embarked last Friday for one week away: our small car piled high with too many books, too much food, and more knitting projects than we could complete in a year. And, of course, three sets of snowshoes and cross-country skis.

We brought board games and sourdough starter; art supplies and wool socks; read-aloud books and bags of yarn. Everything we’d need for a hyggely week away from home, snuggled down in the northwoods at my parent’s cabin.

While it has been a snowy winter, we honestly had no idea how much snow would greet us upon our arrival. I can’t recall the last time we’ve had so much snow! Thigh deep! (And I’m nearly 6′ tall.) So much show, like all of my childhood winter dreams come true.

Needless to say, we’ve spent much of each day outside–snowshoeing, skiing, making ‘camp’ in the woods, and building a quinzhee (our favorite sort of snow fort).

Then back inside we would go, for hot tea, comfort food, and time thawing out by the fire.

Each night, our sleep was long, well-earned, and deep.

On one favorite day, we packed up a can of baked beans, some cold sausages, and a few oatmeal cookies. We added matches, a hand saw, and pocket knives, then strapped into our old woven snowshoes and headed into my family’s woods.

We walked atop of the knee- to thigh-deep snow for some time, then, finding a sunny clearing in the balsams and hemlocks, we set to work clearing snow, gathering firewood, and making camp.

It was only a day camp, but cozy and homey nonetheless.

After a spell, our fire crackled, and our lunch sizzled.

We spent the day in our makeshift camp before extinguishing our fire, packing up, and returning home. We rolled back inside cold and damp, but well fed and contentedly tired, then warmed ourselves with tea and a fire in the fireplace.

After a full, delicious week away, we stumbled back home to the Driftless last night. So happy to reunite with Pete (this is a trip that just the kids and I take each year), Moose and Grandpa (the dogs), the barn cats, and this quiet valley we call home.

We returned much changed.

We are more sore and more fit; more fed and relaxed. We are simultaneously more tired and more rested than we’ve been in a very long while.

And all of it felt just right.

Back home, unpacking our cooler and our car, another adventure is behind and within us; another hyggely winter week enjoyed.

The scent of woodsmoke lingers in our hair, a memento from our magical time away.

Cold weather magic

I posted a video on Instagram earlier this week that caused a bit of a buzz! Shot by Sage, it showed me throwing a pot of just boiled water into the air, the liquid flashing into a cloud upon making contact with the cold air.

Indeed, it was magic.

So when a friend posted his own video of this cold weather experiment, his version backlit by the sun, I knew we had to give it another go.

At sunrise.

On the coldest day I can remember in 46 Wisconsin years.

So this morning I encourage my sweet family to bundle up and head out into the the -30 F/-34 C morning as the sun crested the hills, for the sake of some winter fun and some photos.

Here are the results:


A necessary postscript, because, safety: You can burn yourself terribly while doing this if it’s not properly executed. Because really. You are literally pitching hot water into the wind.

The water does not cool instantly, and if thrown poorly can easily rain down scalding water onto your head. If you try this at home, be safe and start slow. Notice how in the photos of my kids (versus my husband) they are throwing small quantities carefully away from themselves, not overhead. And mind the wind!

Also, this was simply hot tap water. (Possibly not even hot by the time we hiked to the marsh.) It worked brilliantly because, well, -30 F. If you’re using hotter water be careful for goodness sake.

Also, cold this intense can cause frost bite within minutes. We made two brief trips outside to capture the shots above.

A HUGE shout out to Pete, Sage, and Lupine for indulging me with this foray into the cold, and to our friends and Driftless-neighbors Mary G. and Joseph F. for the sunrise inspiration.

What’s the weather like in your neck of the woods?

Stay cozy, dear ones!

Love,
Rachel

To the ridge top

20180930-DSC_7521It’s not always easy- to leave the comforts of fireside and head out into autumn: wind, drizzle, and all. To feel the weather on our skin without the buffer of walls, roof, and wood stove.

But Lupine and I have begun to make a habit of it: heading outside for nature medicine and movement therapy. (I think some just call it “going for a hike”.)

I’ve needed it lately, my heart heavy with the happenings of the day.

So we head to the top of the goat prairie above our house, cleared only last winter of invading honeysuckle and junipers. It might be our favorite perch, with a view of the valley for miles around.

The farm dog (Grandpa) followed. Though he’s old, he can navigate this hill with more grace than I, and we let him lead the way.

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As we headed up the hill, a barred owl in the forest beyond the creek had much to say, and we listened with rapt attention. We felt the thrum in our chests as a flock of sparrows – moving as though with one mind – danced and wove beyond our reach. They’re thinking of autumn, too.

Barely audible, the creek whispered her song to rock and tree. And maybe to us as well.

And I exhaled.

Near the top, I found a cluster of a plant whose identity has eluded me all summer long.

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Despite multiple attempts, I failed at keying it out in books or online. I only took photographs however; never picking a sprig to get to know her subtleties.

Finally, last night (the flowers long since faded) I paused again to wonder at this plant. Who are you? I crushed a leaf between my fingers and inhaled her scent. Normally my first instinct when getting to know a new plant, I had missed this simple, often vital step, and missed the trait that would hint to who this plant might be.

With this fragrance still on my fingers, I found her name after just a moment’s search. Narrow leaf mountain mint – Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. It grows in abundance in our prairie and pasture and the scent is reminiscent of bee balm and oregano. Full of the medicinal components that make thyme such a potent ally during times of cough and cold, we decided to taste for our selves.

The kettle boiled, and I filled our cups.

As night fell on the hillside above us, we sat by the fire (the first of the year), our mugs full of fragrant tea of Mountain Mint. Brewed from the sprig that I brought home, it tasted of summer’s end, of monarda, and of thyme.

It tasted of healing, of autumn, and of home.

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Back home beside the fire again, this wild tea in my cup, I am changed.

My fingers smell of mountain mint, bee balm, and wormwood; my shoulders have softened; the furrow between my eyes has gone. There’s medicine waiting out there – outside – beneath the cloudy sky.

And each time I hike this ridge I leave a heaviness behind, and bring home magic in its place.

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Caterpillar to butterfly

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Remember my little friend, Buddy, the monarch caterpillar? He emerged from his chrysalis!

I found him on a walk a couple of weeks ago on a milkweed patch in the path of the country mower. So I brought him home and set up our butterfly house, and we’ve been obsessively watching him ever since.

He formed a chrysalis a week and a half ago, we’ve been watching closely for days, awaiting his emergence.

Lupine noticed on Wednesday morning that the wings could be clearly seen, folded tightly behind the transparent membrane. We marveled at him for a long while, then stepped outside for only a moment. When we returned, we found him fully emerged!

Needless to say, we were awestruck.

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We watched as he pumped and opened his wings, then rested and dried them, while hanging suspended from the ceiling of the cage.

Finally, it was time to set him free!

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My mom was visiting, so she gathered with the four of us to witness his maiden flight.

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(Last photo courtesy of Lupine.)

I refer to Buddy as “he”, because a friend taught us how to determine gender on a monarch! See those two black spots above on the lower wing in the photo above? And the delicate (thin) black lines throughout? That told us that he was a male, and not a female as we had been guessing all along.

So “she” became “he” in an instant, just after emergence.

The things we learn, side-by-side with out kids! Next up we’re raising Luna moths. A friend gifted us a few luna babies that we’re raising with great excitement. Much to our delight, these amazing chrysalises jiggle and vibrate when you set them down.

They. Are. Incredible.

And a tiny bit creepy.

I shared a video on my Instagram highlights if you want to watch!

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And after that? We have a Polyphemus colony that’s happily munching on oak leaves in our kitchen. Another gift; same friend. This bundle of big fat adorable caterpillars will turn into these beauties.

Needless to say, I’m geeking out on this as much (if not more) than my kids.

Sometimes people ask us when we have our last day of school; do we take the summer off from homeschooling?

Not really. I mean how could we? Life is learning, and our curiosity just won’t quit.

So we don’t have a “first day” or a “last day” of school–not this year, and not ever. Because honestly, we couldn’t stop learning if we tried. And why would we ever want to, with this magic in our kitchen?

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A few postscripts (and a couple of handy afflinks) follow:

1. We were dumbstruck by this podcast and, weeks later, still talk about what we learned from it often. I hope you enjoy!

2. The zippered butterfly tent that we’re using in the photos above we picked up a few years ago. It was a part of this butterfly kit that we really bought just for the house. (Though raising the butterflies that came with it were fun, too.) A friend had one and her butterflies seemed to do so much better than ours did when raised in a makeshift house or gallon jars. Maybe it’s just that I fret about them injuring themselves less in this soft-side tent.

3. And if you’re new to lepadoptera or just looking for a good field guide to caterpillars, this one is a good place to start.

Happy caterpillar hunting, friends!

What else are you going to do?

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Most of the previous mid-April snow had already melted, and we were hopeful for spring.

But then yesterday more snow began to fall in the morning, and we stayed hunkered down by the fire with our homeschooling. The kids had asked for spelling, math, and science (yes, asked – I’m happy to discuss our educational model more for those who are interested!), so that was what we were working on as more and more snow fell.

We refilled the bird feeders. We pulled out the field guide to identify a few visitors that we hadn’t seen in a while. We marveled at how many birds our feeders can hold at one time, then refilled the feeders again.

And despite ourselves we were captivated by the beauty of the falling snow.

Around Lunch time, Sage (winter’s #1 fan) said that he wanted to walk to the creek while the snow was still falling. So we did a bit more homeschooling, working on our herbalism class, and then set to bundling up in our winter gear (that we were either wise – or lazy – enough to not have packed away yet).

And off we set!

We picked up Pete along the way, who was working from home (because: blizzard), and the four of us embarked – with two barn cats and one farm dog in tow (as often happens).

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There was a snowball fight to have, gigantic snowballs to roll up and into the creek, and a family of snow Totoros to sculpt into life. There were belted kingfishers to marvel at, wood ducks to watch descend, and snipe to see winging across the pasture.

We stayed out for hours.

Despite it being dinnertime. Despite it being April. Despite there being a very distinct possibility that we were feeling quite done with winter and ready to move on into flowers, gardens, foraging, and sunshine.

And yet…

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This day was magical.

It was one of the best days we had all winter, never mind that we’re already well into spring.

Because here’s the thing: we’re given one day to do with what we will each morning.

And how we spent it – how we interpret its meaning – is completely up to us.

And we could have spent it worrying about the birds that are hungry on account of the snow, but instead we filled the feeders. And we could have been frustrated that with the Narnia-esque spring we are having and grumped about the weather, but instead we found magic.

We bundled up and got into it. We found the magic and mystery; laughter and beauty in those falling flakes, and we savored every bit. We found connection, creativity, joy and wonder in this wintery spring magic.

Because honestly, what else are you going to do?

You always have two choices of how to play the hand you’ve been dealt, and one of them most certainly feels better than other. The choice of where you dwell is up to you.

Are we done with winter?

Most definitely.

But did magic happen yesterday on account of that unexpected snowfall?

Oh my, yes. Did it ever. And for that I am so glad.

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Prairie burn!

The kids and I hurried home from town last night, arriving to see the hillside above our house already in flames.

That’s a good thing, I assure you.

Pete, two neighbors, and two other area prairie enthusiasts were already at work, burning fire breaks and raking debris to prepare our shared prairie for a prescribed burn.

(All photos are expandable. Click to see a larger view.)

The project began many weeks ago, and truly culminated last night in this long-awaited burn.

Pete, our friend Alan, and our next door neighbor Jeff had spent the past many weeks working tirelessly to restore an expanse of goat prairie (that spans our and Jeff’s land) that was being slowly but steadily covered in juniper trees. Invasive honeysuckle was waiting in the (wooded) wings.

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Alan, who lives just up the valley from us a couple of miles, (pictured here in green) has been champing at the bit to restore this prairie for some 20 years.

His delight was evident – and contagious.

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We’ve done prescribed burns with Alan in years past, burning pastures and bottomlands below our barn. But this time was different.

This was an ecosystem built by fire, but one that had not been burned (in Al’s estimation) for 75 years.

We know that the original homesteaders grazed sheep and goats here (old fences still remain, tangled in the forest at the ridge-line), but other than that it’s been abandoned, largely due to it’s steep slope and shallow, rock-strewn soil.

With the junipers gone, it was time to give the prairie one last push toward health.

With fire.

Moments after we arrived, Sage was “voluntold” (as he good-naturedly put it) to grab a water pack and work a firebreak. Lupine and I skirted the edges, keeping our eyes peeled for any sparks or embers jumping the boundary. (We had lived that experience before, the four of us and Al, and never wanted to do so again.)

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This burn, thankfully, went according to plan.

The excitement in the air was as thick as the smoke, and this remnant scrap of prairie was lovingly – yet dramatically – coaxed back toward health.

From a homeschooling perspective, we couldn’t have asked for more. It’s been a couple of years since the kids were involved in a burn. (Look at how young they were during this one!)

And they jumped in with enthusiasm.

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It was impossible to stop smiling.

The very real sense of community; the feeling of being true stewards for the land; the knowledge that hard work pays off; the contagious spirit of volunteerism – all of it came together as the sun slipped behind the smoking hillside.

I went to bed feeling grateful for good neighbors, old prairies, and no surprise gusts of wind.

What a night! And what a project.

Around the maple fire

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If the photos above are any indicator, we'd have twice as much syrup in the pantry if we hadn't developed such a taste for hot sap at all stages of cooking.

In truth, this ritual is more of our spring celebration than the one that involves hidden eggs and bunnies. This is the one that draws us out, year after year, as the snow retreats. 

I'm so glad.

And I'm happy to give up some syrup for the feeling that it creates.

Because after the long winter cozied before the fire, it awakens us at our core to go out into the chill and spend all of the day, reading aloud, sipping sap, and trading stories as the geese and cranes soar above us.

And so last week, while Pete was busy with bookkeeping and taxes for LüSa, the kids and I headed outside to cook the first of our sap. 

"Bring three mugs!" Sage called from the yard, gathering kindling. I grabbed four, knowing full well that maple cooking was more enticing than taxes in Pete's book. I was right. We weren't outside for 15 minutes before he emerged to fill his cup. (In more ways than one.)

It was also the first run of the new cooker that he made, and I couldn't imagine he'd want to miss that.

It is welded of two steel drums (food-grade drums that our organic coconut oil and other organic oils are delivered in for soap-making) and two stainless steel chafing dishes from a restaurant supply store. It worked brilliantly, and we were so glad to have him join us.

There we spent the day, cooking sap, making syrup, and welcoming spring.

I'll even forget for the moment that there's snow in the forecast for tomorrow. 

 

 

 

When we grow up

When I was 15 a well-intentioned woman in a business suit told me, "Someday you'll grow up and have to get a real job and wear a suit." 

I laughed.

"Mark my words," I told her, "I will never have a job where I need to wear a suit."

She was unconvinced. I was not.

I forgot entirely about this conversation for a decade. And then, as a naturalist working at a field station (my very first job out of college), I stopped mid-stride on the trail, remembering. I was walking through the woods, so happy, so grateful, listening to a pileated woodpecker weaving through the branches overhead. The sun was streaming through the trees. I was at work! In the woods! This was my life.

And standing there in my t-shirt, blue jeans, and hiking boots, I remembered her words. "Someday you'll grow up and have to get a real job and wear a suit." 

Or, maybe not.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I thought of her comment again yesterday, as I sat in knee-high muck boots beside a campfire on a Wednesday morning. (I was here on Monday, too, possibly wearing the same clothes.)

I am a homeschooling parent, a writer, a photographer, a teacher, and a small business owner of 15 years. And still – no suit. 

I think of her comment and how my own kids would feel as they move steadily toward adulthood to get the message that "someday you'll need to suck it up and live that life you don't want to because that's what growing up means." 

But does it? 

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world – yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I think that message would fall on hungry, welcoming hearts.

All that I wanted at 15 (or 9, or 40) was to be a photographer. And now I take pictures everyday. That was my singular dream from 4th grade onward, and now it is a part of my daily joy. 

Am I the exception or the rule?

And if I am the exception, why?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I hope my kids land on the same side that I have – knowing and living their joy.

And so yesterday, instead of talking about suits or futures or jobs they won't love, my kids and I headed back to the woods.

Like everyday this week.

Because October and childhood only lasts so long.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

The first thing my kids do when we get into the woods is take off their shoes. They stalk quietly barefoot through the leaves, they listen, they are still.

They are building forts right now, one dug into the cool forest floor and the other woven of invasive honeysuckle we have cleared. I pull garlic mustard and listen to woodpeckers in the branches above us while they work.

On this day we built a campfire, then began carving spoons from a freshly felled hickory. It was delightful and if we had brought lunch I doubt we would have headed home before dinnertime. Sure, back home there were other lessons and tasks to attend to, but for the morning anyway, nothing was more important than this.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

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What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

Barefoot, dirty, and smelling of woodsmoke, they learn. They discover and explore things that they love. They learn to value silence, stillness, and nature. They ground themselves in the quiet wonder of the woods.

And me right along with them.

Will my kids grow up someday, put on shoes, buy suits, and go to work?

Perhaps.

But only if it is the thing that speaks to their hearts with the clearest song. Because if I have done my work properly, they will both grow up knowing the value of hard work, yes, but also the value of people and feelings and forests and joy, and of following their own path – not the one they are told to take.

 

I may have earned more dollars in a business suit, but at what cost to my heart?

Because life, I believe, is about so much more than just paychecks. 

 

Mulberries

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Since moving to our farm some five or so years ago, we've fallen in love with mulberries. They grow in abundance on our land and new trees appear every year. Like weeds, some would say! But this sort of weed (like many others) is welcome by me.

Ripening earlier than all of the bramble fruits (like raspberries and blackberries), they catch us before we're buried in produce to can, freeze, or process. And because they grow on thornless trees, the picking is painless!

What's not to love about that? 

Despite my mulberry affections, we found that for every berry we harvested in a rainstorm of ripe berries cascaded down around us, directly onto the ground. Mulberries hang on so tenderly when ripe that it was impossible not to lose more to the grass than we placed in our baskets.

And then someone gave me a tip that involved bedsheets and tree-shaking. And that sounded like just my sort of picking! 

Yesterday we gave it a trial-run. And our results? Well, I'll let the pictures below speak for themselves.

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It was the easiest picking ever! We simply spread three large sheets on the ground, then shook like mad to loosen the fruit. And? It worked! Like magic, I tell you. 

For those who want to give it a try, here is the process in four easy steps:

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1. Spread out your catching cloths (psst – they're bedsheets)

Choose some large pieces of fabric (king or queen-sized bedsheets work best). Whatever you use will be stained with dark purple juice by the time you are done – especially if you bring young helpers along – so plan ahead. Use your own rejects or pick some up at the second hand store. And please don't freak out about your food on someone else's bedsheets. Actually, just don't think about it. Instead, simply wash them twice in the hottest water your washer can manage, then dry before use. That should do the trick of prepping both your brain and your "catching cloths" nicely.

Overlap your sheets on the ground so you don't lose many berries between them.

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2. Shake!

If you can reach the berry-laden limbs of your tree, simply stand on your cloths (we kicked our shoes off first), grab a branch, and give it a vigorous shake. Brake yourself for the rain of berries! If you can't reach (or if climbing sounds like more fun), then up you go!  

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3. Gather 

When you've shaken all you can from a particular section, gather your berries up in your sheet. Simply grab the corners and carefully lift so the berries all pool in the center. Then with a stead hand (or four), pour them right into your basket, using the cloth like a fabric funnel. 

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4. Repeat

Repeat this process as you work your way around the tree or around the neighborhood.

I promise you it will be the quickest fruit harvest you've ever experienced! 

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5. Eat!

With your berry stained fingers, hands, and fingernails, eat great handfuls of your glorious harvest. It doesn't get much better than this! 

The part of our harvest that the kids didn't eat right off of the gathering cloths we brought home for jam, and froze the rest for winter smoothies. And truly – it was so fast. We gathered pounds of berries in under 1/2 hour!

That's my kind of foraging.