Living off the Land
Author Thomas Elpel shares knowledge of natural world
By Ben Pierce of The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. 06/25//2009
HARRISON - A stiff west wind whipped across the shoreline of Harrison Lake on Monday morning as I walked with author and educator Thomas Elpel of Pony.
We'd driven down to the lake from Elpel's stone and timber home built in the shadow of Hollowtop Mountain to explore the wild edible plants and mushrooms growing on the rolling hills that surround the lakeshore.
"Mustards have four petals and six stamens," Elpel says as we pause near a plant with brilliant yellow flowers. "There are about 3,200 of them in the world and with that information you can recognize mustards and they are all edible."
Elpel snaps the top off the plant and hands me the blossoms. A few moments later my mouth is alive with the spicy sting of hot mustard.
Elpel, originally from Bozeman, and his wife Renee built their home in Pony after marrying at the Pony Park in 1989. But it was Elpel's grandmother, Josie Jewett, who originally drew Elpel to Pony and fostered his lifelong passion for the outdoors.
"My grandma was highly influential," Elpel, 41, said. "She had mentored me in the edible and medicinal plants and got me started in the plant identification, and had the interest in survival skills as well. She lived in Virginia City and moved to Pony and I followed her."
As a young boy, Elpel would often walk with his grandmother in the hills around Virginia City collecting plants and herbs. Jewett cooked on a woodstove and always had a pot of tea on. She foraged peppermint, yarrow, red clover and numerous other plants for teas, food and medicinal purposes.
"If I had a cold she always gave me yarrow tea with honey in it," Elpel said. "She had this whole closet full of teas that she had made."
Elpel's introduction to wild edibles led to a lifelong pursuit of outdoor knowledge. Beginning in junior high and carrying through high school, Elpel spent countless hours exploring Montana and furthering his understanding of nature.
"I started out with guides, looking at the pictures and flipping through trying to match up flowers," Elpel said. "If I could not identify them there, I took them to the herbarium in Bozeman at the university."
Elpel's quest to identify wild plants led to the publication of Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. The bestseller is used as a textbook in universities across the country.
"I have never taken a botany class, but I figured there had to be an easier way than flipping through the pictures or trying to learn all the jargon," Elpel said. "And so I got into what I call the patterns method - that basically related plants have similar characteristics for identification and often similar uses.
"It is kind of a thrill because instead of getting hung up on thinking you need to know the names of all these things, you can focus more on the plant."
Elpel said Montana is blessed with enough wild edibles that a resourceful forager could live wholly on gathered foods. Between plants, mushrooms, fish and wild game, Montana's landscape serves up quite a bounty.
"One of the false ideas of survival skills is that you are going to plunk yourself down over there and find everything you need to make a shelter, build a fire and go find food," Elpel said. "But the people that lived here were hunter gatherers, nomadic for a reason. That is because here in the West nature is like a banquet, but the table is very long and you have to be at the right part of the table at the right time." Elpel's exploration of wild edibles evolved into an interest in a variety of topics. He has published six books to date on subjects as varied as building sustainable homes to economics.
In Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills Elpel tackles the human relationship with nature in the modern world. The book helps people reestablish their connection with the outdoors.
"There became this nature ethic of don't touch anything, look but don't touch," Elpel said. "I think that is big mistake because it pretty much reduces nature to wallpaper - something that we look at - and we are in danger of losing that connection.
"If you start not just looking, but eating, you learn about nature in a much more intimate way," Elpel said.
In addition to writing, Elpel established Green University with the mission of "Promoting a Vision of Green Prosperity." For the past several years he has worked with junior high students at Harrison School. Elpel hosts students on an overnight trip near Harrison and introduces them to survival skills and foraging.
"The students love the junior high outdoor classroom campout," said Harrison teacher Linda Ehlers via e-mail from Alaska. "It is one of the greatest joys you'll ever experience. You see all kinds of new attitudes emerge and lots of old attitudes disappear, not just in the students, but in yourself.
"As they experience the lessons Tom has for them, self-confidence starts to build. Students start to relax and find strengths they didn't know they had. Barriers come down, and they start to work together."
As Elpel and I settle in by an old cottonwood on the west shore of Harrison Lake, he cuts the greens we've foraged with a Swiss Army knife onto a piece of tree bark. He adds a few yellow flowers to the mix for a bit of color.
We eat with our fingers as the wind whips across the lake.
For more information on wild plant identification or Thomas Elpel's projects, visit web world portal www.hollowtop.com.
Used with permission of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Go to Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Go to Books and Videos by Thomas J. Elpel
Return to the Primitive Living Skills Page.