My volunteer job for a couple of years when living in California involved taking care of the little ritual flower altars in the Berkeley Zen Centre garden. And in the same garden, pulling weeds. Until I got fired. By the volunteer head gardener.
One might imagine that someone volunteering in the Zen realm would be empathetic and forgiving. Not always so. I had thought she was looking to fire me for some time before she finally did. My ultimate bad was pulling out something growing in an odd place in the garden that I felt sure must be a weed, so rapidly did it atomically mushroom during my absences, one week to the next.
I obsessed over not having pulled it for probably three weeks, this at regular intervals from when I left at the end of one shift to when I arrived a week later for the next. And there it still was. Looking gloatingly weedy and oh-so-much huger.
Finally, with the spectre hanging over me of the volunteer head gardener finger-wagging at my lack of weed diligence, I yanked it out. Only to get a call a day or so later from a resident senior monk. He was apologetic. Unhappy to be calling. But he was impelled to ask why I had pulled what the volunteer head gardener said was not a weed? Then, after letting me know he would rather not be the message-bearer, he said her request was that he tell me not to set foot in her garden again.
Prior to this, the volunteer head gardener had made it clear she thought I was a hopeless puller of weeds. Particularly the little clumps of three-leaf clover weeds that sprung from the soil in random clusters. The volunteer head gardener wasn’t often there, to my relief. But the three or four times she was – and no matter how much better I thought I was doing – she reprimanded me for not extricating all the little bulbs and bulbils, which I learned this week the underground clusters are called that hide in the soil and give rise to the three-leaf clovers. Which I knew well by sight from South Africa long before they caused me misery in Berkeley. And which I now know to be called oxalis. And which one should eat if one is going to weed them out.
“They’re delicious. Sour and tangy. They’re used in waterblommetjie bredie (suurings). Yes, you could add them to a cheese and mustard sandwich. Few weeds are poisonous. I just nibble a little bit (to gauge) if it’s one I don’t know. Sometimes I will ask people on Instagram,” says Nikki Brighton, who lives in Howick with her dog, Beans, and her partner of 32 years. They were apart for 20 years when she engaged in a rent barter and lived on a farm not too far away. Then two years ago she moved in with him and into the small KZN Midlands town. Which she loves. The connections. The food options. Being able to walk everywhere.
“A writer and food activist is how I describe myself,” she tells me when we connect to talk. She has already messaged me that she identifies as a locavore. “I’m hardcore. I do local in a serious way.” As in “somewhere you can get your donkey in a day: 25km.”
Although if she follows the more common norm, with local referring to what’s available and growing in a 100km radius (Durban being 88km from where she lives), “then we have wheat and pineapples growing locally”.
A daily weed forager and eater, Brighton runs edible weed experiences (paused during lockdown) under the Slow Food umbrella (all proceeds to a community feeding scheme).
Note: I found this delightful locavore living video link for anyone interested.
“Slow Food (the movement) is important to me. I use Slow Food as an umbrella to get things going,” she says. Slow Food representing good, clean and fair food for all. And preserving biodiversity of the natural environment, food and taste.
She has two blogs, Midlands Mosaic and Plant Abundance, both of which have a local-is-lekker own-backyard focus. Her “lockdown leaves” edible weed and flower blog post that I came upon on Facebook prompted me to reach out and connect.
Before I speak to her I have read that blackjacks are a good source of beta-carotene, iron, iodine, zinc, calcium, vitamins A and E. That stinging nettles are crammed with immune-boosting compounds, fabulous served with potatoes, lose their sting when cooked or blitzed. That you can make a good pesto with nettles, walnuts and peppery olive oil.
And that the leaves of sweet potatoes are edible and delicious.
“The moles eat my potatoes, which is fine. They also need to eat something. I eat the leaves,” she tells me when we talk vegetables and eating the parts we usually throw away. Like carrot tops, which she tells me to cook like spinach or add to stews.
“My favourite is to steam or stir-fry young sweet potato leaves,” she says.
“They have a silky texture and a fragrance and flavour similar to the sweet potato. They’re perfect for adding to a green smoothie, for bulking up the green component of soups and stews or just in a big bowl of mixed greens topped with feta.”
Brighton, a bit of a one-woman whirlwind who passionately picks up projects and people and carries them along with her, has been involved in community activism around food, food security and by nature of this, sustainable farming practices, for a long time. Environmental education is key.
“I wanted everybody to love frogs and butterflies. But realised if you are hungry, you’re not going to love frogs and butterflies.” So from there, “we started food gardens. Put a lot of effort into food gardens”.
Building soil, as in farming properly. And eating properly, as in real food, locally sourced food, foraged food, food you grow yourself. The opposite of convenience food and fast-food. To raise consciousness around these she sees as pivotal issues we all might work on to heal – to save – the planet.
“Food is causing climate change,” she says. Think about it and it makes sense.
Along the way, “foodies fall victim”. Think about it again. Makes sense. Not being able to grow food anymore. Food traditions dying out. Genetically modified food. Eating but not nourishing ourselves. But, “if we can look at a plate and think, Mbali grew this and May made that…” Grassroots activism. Locavore living.
“Convenience and disposable. These are the two worst things that have happened to the planet,” she says.
Again, think about it. Convenience. Disposable. No point me sitting here listing, or asking Brighton to list. We only need ponder. Which many of us now, in lockdown, are being forced to do. And now have the time to do.
On a practical, grassroots level, Brighton has a myriad thoughts and suggestions. Which, being a writer, she expresses well on her blogs. But here and now:
Her garden? “It’s not huge. One doesn’t need a big garden.” Edible? “Everyone round here with a garden as is growing something edible. And everyone knows you can’t get veggies without pollination. You need flowers to attract the bees and the bugs, the beetles, the butterflies.” So mix it all up a bit, she says. The flowers, the vegetables. A few weeds.
“Not everyone will want to grow vegetables but it is possible in a small space. Parsley, coriander, green chard, lettuce are all easy to grow. Then peas. You wouldn’t believe how wonderful fresh peas are.”
What about getting to the veggies before the bugs do?
“If the soil is not healthy the plant will not be healthy and it will get attacked,” she says. Variety can help. “If there is a line of cabbages, it’s like a landing strip for bugs. If there is one cabbage, one this, one that, it confuses the bugs. I think we must get over the need for neatly spaced gardens. Have more diversity. Let things go a bit wild. The more we destroy biodiversity the worse for the planet.”
And vegetables. “Eat the whole thing,” she says. The carrot tops, as mentioned. “I keep all the tops and all the little bits. The veggie peels. I pile them into a container in the freezer. Put them in my solar cooker. Makes wonderful soup. We waste a phenomenal amount of food – chopping off Swiss chard stalks. That sort of thing.”
Brighton has ideas and recipes for weeds, seeds and everything in between. I ask her for a couple using weeds or flowers. Being autumn, “the chickweed is coming up but that’s not terribly exciting. One can make a little pesto with them. But the weeds in spring: One looks forward to them. I think of the gogos in France and Italy excitedly awaiting the first dandelions”.
As honeysuckle is still in bloom, she gives this honeysuckle cordial recipe:
1 cup of fresh flowers; 400 ml water; 130g sugar. Combine all the ingredients in a wide-necked jar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover with a piece of muslin kept in place with an elastic band. Stir the mixture every day. You will notice bubbles starting to form after a few days. Then it is ready to strain and bottle. I keep my bottles in the fridge so that the fermenting stops and there are no explosions.
Also still flowering right now are nasturtiums. “The flavours are so good. Eat a few flowers or leaves. So medicinal.” Her nasturtium leaf pesto is, she says, a favourite.
To make it take 4 cups nasturtium leaves; 1 garlic clove; half a cup sunflower seeds; 1 cup olive oil. Blitz and enjoy.
“Life’s a journey,” Brighton, who volunteers she is 59, says when I ask how she – “a Pietermaritzburg girl” who studied drama and sociology on the Pietermaritzburg campus of UKZN then completed her degree through UNISA – got into all this. There was an early job as “a car hire girl at the airport”. There was a stint at the PMB Chamber. There was a lot of corporate writing, of which she still does a bit.
“I write to earn a living – PR-type writing.” But living with her partner, and having made her life as simple as possible, “I don’t have to worry about anything. In the old days it would have been called having a patron. I can now do what I want for the community.”
She barters quite a bit. “I bartered bread for six months. I bartered for a mindfulness course when I wrote for a psychologist. I am about to barter for yoga.
“I do some PR and social media for small farmers. I can start fires.” It’s her enthusiasm. “I am good at motivating people. I started markets. I do lunches for friends. So now people are asking me to give talks.”
You amble along, is how life happens, she has found. “One thing leads to the next. I planted an indigenous garden. Butterflies came, so in turn I got to know a lot about wild flowers. The journey started maybe in my late 20s.
“Why are we eating pigs when pigs are smarter than our dogs? You and your partner ask the question one day. And at some point decide, no we better not eat pigs.
“Now I am able to thank every single person who has contributed to any of my meals. I know the person who made the yoghurt, who grew the pumpkin, who made the bread. We’re fortunate to have so many people around here interested in food and producing or growing food of one kind or another.
“Everything except the lentils and rice, we can get locally. In place of rice, we can eat more locally grown maize, sorghum and millet. In place of lentils, chickpeas, nuts and sugarbeans.
“So I would say life is organic, really. You have no clue where it will take you; how it will turn out. You do something, find it interesting. And suddenly you’re being interviewed by Daily Maverick about food.”
Brighton starts most days with a a sunrise uMngeni River foraging walk with Beans. “She’s an African. We forage while we walk. Pick weeds. I found her running down the street one day. I put her in my car and took her to the Howick SPCA (where Brighton walks the dogs every Saturday). Nobody claimed her and I knew how bad I’d feel if I went back and she was sitting in a cage waiting to be adopted so I said I’d take her.
She forages for nettles, chickweed, plantain and dandelion. Puts what she finds in her morning smoothie. “Beans also eats lots of wild greens and weeds, by the way. All her food is local, seasonal, organic, ethically farmed, just like ours.”
Brighton says while she and her partner became vegetarian together, he probably wouldn’t be so big on weeds if not for her. “He was ambivalent but now he has his favourites.”
Brighton, while working with a small group of conservationists, activists, food growers and environmental students in Mpophomeni township outside Howick, compiled a food-themes book Mnandi: a Taste of Mpophomeni (this is the purchase link) to raise funds for the community. All book sale proceeds support the Slow Food Community of Mpophomeni, among other things providing free wifi to the community in the area around the library. The book includes a section on the most common edible weeds in KZN.
Thinking weeds, first thing I do after our call is exit my back door to where my neighbour has a row of five potted orchids. For weeks I’ve been meaning to weed the biggest pot, which is blooming with three-leaf-clovers. Oxilis. The weeds that lost me my garden job.
“You’re weeding my pot plants?” I hear Lorette, from her kitchen.
“No, I’m foraging,” I tell her. “I’m going to eat them on my sandwich.”
“As children we used to eat them on the farm,” she says.
“I’ve just heard they’re nutritious. Good for you. That we should be eating them,” I say. “If someone had told us that then, we wouldn’t have eaten them,” she laughs.
When I was fired from my garden job, the failure hung heavy. I had by then experienced six job lay-offs in that part of the world. From real jobs. Ones that paid the rent.
Funny, but not one of the formal job losses knocked me as did being fired from my volunteer Zen garden job.
If only the volunteer head gardener could see my now, I think as I bite into my first harvest of oxilis, on grainy Glenwood Bakery sourdough with cheddar and mustard. I could tell her, keeping things polite, not only to eat her words but also to eat her weeds. DM/TGIFood
Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com.
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