Every spring I get the urge to stop by Ernie Clendening’s to see how the winter treated him.
Ernie lives off the land. Trapping, hunting, fishing, and gathering. All done in time and in season. That and the three pigs he raises every summer down by the creek in a pen made from sticks and bits of old tin roofing is all he seems to need.
“I’m out of flour and the dew should be off the cattails by now,” he said the last time I was down there, “I’d better go out and dig some more.”
Cattail has been called “the supermarket of the swamps.” I think Ernie could go into a cattail marsh in any season and come out with something to eat.
He looks for cattails in early spring when they are just sprouting. He says the new white stalks are good munching food. Then he feels along the stalk under the mud and yanks out the root. Wash the mud away and a cattail root looks like a brown rope with new, white tapering shoots. Every bit of this root, except the skin, is edible.
The first time I went out with Ernie, he said, “These new shoots are crisp and good.” Thrusting one at me he said, “Bite one of the shoots right there. It will be the tenderest raw plant you’ve ever tasted.”
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but he was right.
We pulled up about a bushel of roots and took them back to his place. We snapped the white shoots off to save for later, peeled the wet roots, then dumped them in a large pot full of clean water and mashed them with a potato masher. We squeezed and kneaded those roots until what was left looked like a bundle of string. That’s the fiber. What was in the water was the pulp.
After straining the water through cheesecloth a few times, the pulp was nice and white. Ernie said he dries it and runs it through a grinder until it is powder. Then he uses it as he sees fit. Cattail flour tastes like oatmeal to me.
Ernie had a few other tips about cattails. “Around the end of June you’ll see a green bloom spike. When this spike is about six inches long it is ready to be picked, just like corn. Snap off the bloom and peel away the green husk. Underneath are green flower buds. Cook them in boiling, salted water for about 10 minutes and eat them hot, coated with plenty of butter or grease.”
“Where the cattail roots join the plant is a lump about the size of a small potato. You can roast it or fry it. Try it sometime.”
Ernie doesn’t have much of a house. Inside, the two-by-fours have some insulation stuffed between them here and there. Outside, green tar paper serves as siding under a roof that looks like it crawled up there from his pig pen. He knows it isn’t much, but it doesn’t bother him or his girlfriend, Ida.
“We’re easy to please,” he says in a drawl that takes about a minute.
He’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. I first met him when he stopped by to ask if he could trap our land across the road. There were some beavers whose dam was flooding a future pasture, so I was happy to give him permission in return for taking me and my son with him sometime.
“Sure, I’d be glad to have you and the young lad along,” he said. “Anytime you want.”
Since then, we’ve fished together, borrowed boats back and forth, and swapped ideas for self-feeding pig stations. We arranged a time to go out trapping, but it turned out to be -25 F that morning. When he stopped by, he said, “It may be a little too chilly to go today.”
That was just what I wanted to hear. So, we had a cup of tea in my kitchen with the cookstove roaring. I asked him about beaver trapping and what bait he used.
“I don’t really use any bait,” he said, “My traps are double-jawed, and I get them down into the water along where the beaver travel. They swim into them and that’s it. You get your hands wet doing that but the traps are quick, and the beaver don’t suffer. The trick is to set the traps where the beaver ride the currents and there’s always the risk of falling in. That’s something I wouldn’t want to do on a day like today.
“Generally, beaver will let a good skin of ice form, then open their dam just enough to lower the water about six inches. That way, they have a nice roof of ice over the water with a six-inch airspace and they can travel under there anywhere they want to go. Or, they travel along the shore where an ice shelf might leave an air pocket.
“I only had trouble once. A big old male came roaring at me, parting the grass as he came. He was right at my feet before I managed to shoot him. His teeth were long and curved and yellow, growing back into his mouth. I suppose they made him irritable.
“But, beaver ain’t worth near half as much as they used to be. Hardly worth going out. I just do it because I can still pay most of my bills in beaver and I get a nice walk in the woods in the winter.”
Ernie’s son, Bill, bought the local gas station, and I noticed Ernie there pumping gas sometimes on weekends to help out. One busy morning I asked Bill where he was.
“He’s a good worker when he’s here,” laughed Bill. “He came in three Saturdays last month. Then he told me he really needed some time off, that this regular rat-race was killing him. I guess it was just a little too steady for Dad.”