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What foraging in the woods and living out my pastoral fantasy taught me about my real values

June 13, 2019 5:05 am

Welcome to Steph Is Skeptical, an introspective column from HG’s senior lifestyle editor, Stephanie Hallett. Every month, join Steph as she tries a new activity or adventure that gives her pause—and watch her learn something.

I have a fantasy about myself as a woman of the woods. Born and raised in Toronto, I grew up camping and hiking in the forests of Ontario, Canada. I can light a fire, I can pitch a tent, I can paddle a canoe—the forest is my happy place. But at my core, I’m a city girl, and I’ve always wondered if I could actually “make it” if I fulfilled my lifelong dream of buying a cabin in the woods and emerging only to forage plants and shovel snow off my front porch. So when I got the chance to test my own mettle on a weekend-long foraging adventure, I couldn’t say no.

I lived out my pastoral fantasy during a three-day trip to Myrtle Glen Farm, a 27-acre bed-and-breakfast homestead in rural southern Oregon run by 30-something couple Micha Gross and Dan Pennington. The trip was part of Airbnb’s new Adventures offering, a set of more than 200 multi-day experiences in far-flung corners of the world, including the Amazon rainforest and Mt. Ololokwe in Kenya. My trip involved wild foraging, tincture- and mead-making, goat petting, and more.

Before heading out on my flight from L.A. + three-hour drive to the farm, though, I wondered if this trip would change my mind about myself. Would I actually hate being so isolated? Would foraging end up hurting my back? And would all that goddamn frog croaking and bird chirping keep me up at night and make me a grouchy, horrible houseguest? I was skeptical of my own ability to endure. (I also secretly worried my hosts might be Trump supporters, since this part of Oregon went decidedly for Trump in 2016, and my travel buddy said she thought the whole thing might be like an episode of Portlandia. I’m happy to report that neither fear came true.)

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To get to Myrtle Glen Farm, I flew from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon then drove two hours to Coos Bay to meet Micha and Dan. From there, we drove about an hour more to the pair’s property near Coquille, where they live with two German Shepherds, Spruce and Sequoia, two alpacas named Chewpaca and Pacabel, a herd of happy goats, some chickens, ducks, and a rotating cast of WWOOFers (volunteers who come through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms program). If you want to visit and don’t have a car, you can fly into Southwest Region Airport in North Bend and ask Micha and Dan to pick you up from there.

We kicked things off with a tour of the farm and got the lowdown on homesteading. Micha and Dan, who met 11 years ago as students at the University of California, Santa Barbara (Dan saw Micha singing “Barracuda” on a bar at karaoke night and fell in love at first sight), bought their property in July 2014 after living in Los Angeles and Austin, then deciding city life wasn’t for them. They spent a few years in Eugene, working odd jobs and doing photography, and saved enough to buy their property a few hours away. Both artists—they wrote a mockumentary about karaoke together back in their L.A. days—it was ultimately their passionate commitment to environmentalism and interest in all things flora that motivated them to make their home at Myrtle Glen and live off the land.

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On top of building and maintaining a self-sustaining permaculture farm and living a life that creates virtually no waste—they make their own everything, from their “Band ’em By the Balls” hot sauce (ask Micha to explain that name) to jams, mead, honey, juice, cheese, and compost—Micha and Dan are also active members of Coast Range Forest Watch, a citizen advocacy group, and other local organizations that fight aerial pesticide and herbicide spraying, water contamination, and deforestation. During our days together, I learned a ton about how logging has decimated Oregon’s old-growth forests, and how bad forestry practices are threatening local communities.

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On the second day of the adventure, we spent the afternoon foraging in the woods. We drove about 10 miles to the headwaters of Middle Creek and set off to visit Doerner Fir, one of the oldest trees in the world, scooping up edible plants from the forest floor along the way. Did I think I might die from eating random, foraged plants? Indeed I did. But what I experienced was actually a symphony of flavor. In season in early June were plenty of tart wood sorrel (pictured below on the ground, foraged, and in a salad), IPA-flavored hemlock tips, bushy white yarrow—a powerful immune booster—and vanilla leaf, which tastes just like vanilla bean when dried. I sampled at least five different greens with flavors ranging from bright and citrusy to deep and bitter (great for digestion!) and reader, I’m alive and thriving.

Cristina Samiley/Stephanie Hallett, HelloGiggles

Micha, an amateur mycologist and botanist, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s edible flora, and Dan knows the forest’s history inside-out.

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As part of this beautiful adventure, I also learned how to make mead and tinctures, ate some of the best, truly farm-to-table meals of my life, awoke to a rooster crowing and sunlight streaming in through an overhead skylight, and learned something about myself: I am not cut out for farm life. Not just because it’s laborious in a way that my body will not tolerate (it is) or because I’d miss having friends nearby (that’s true, too), but because I care as much about healthy urban life and development as Micha and Dan do about the protection of their woods.

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On the drive to the airport before my flight home, Micha and Dan asked if L.A. has changed much in the decade since they lived here. I found myself getting hyped up about transit developments and public space projects that have cropped up in recent years, turning Los Angeles from a car culture to a real place, and bemoaning an ongoing lack of affordable housing that’s contributed to a deep homelessness crisis. As much as I love wide open space and sun sparkling through Douglas Fir trees, I finally realized I’ll probably live out my days in a city where I can connect with people and participate in public life.

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Of course, Myrtle Glen Farm is a little slice of paradise. I may never be a woman of the woods, but I’ll be back here again soon. And you should go, too—I mean really, book your trip right now. The adventure is in getting there. It’s in harvesting your own wild greens and eating them straight from the forest floor. It’s in wandering the goat pasture and petting sweet Linda, the alpha of the pack (who farted loudly in front of me, the real highlight of the trip). And saying yes is easy—because the meals are perfect, the beds are the coziest, and Micha and Dan will make you laugh till your abs hurt. Plus, their dedication to improving their piece of the planet will inspire your own activism and remind you what matters most to you—just like it did for me. When you get there, tell them Steph said hi from her noisy little apartment in the city.