First Time Foraging and an Encounter with The Goddess
As we made our way slowly up through the Sierra of Madrid, we discovered so much more than we had originally intended to. From the foraging adventures of the forest to a chance meeting with the Goddess, Mother Nature taught us a lesson about the Divine Feminine.
Once thought to be a thing only for our hunter-gather ancestors of the past, foraging is once again making a come back. With the recent surge in interest in the environment and nature, people are returning to the ancient forests and seeing what hidden gifts nature has lain for them on their paths.
I admit that I am also one of these city-dwelling newbies who is only just beginning to reconnect to my ancestral roots. Having recently finished the book ´The Moneyless Man´ by Mark Boyle, and reading all about his back to basics foraging exploits, I felt so inspired and that I was ready to give it a go myself!
Further inspiration came from the ´useful info´ section at the back of the book, where there I discovered the gem that is the website and blog of ´Fergus the Forager´. There I discovered a treasure trove of information regarding edible plants, how to forage them and incorporate them into your kitchen and told in a beautifully poetic way to boot.
But inspiration quickly turned to frustration when I realised that all of this information was based around foraging in the UK- and I live in Spain; Madrid city centre to be exact. How much foraging can I really do around here?
So it was a wonderful surprise when my friend Anthony invited me to go hiking with him and his botanist friend, Ernesto. You have to take opportunities when they present themselves so of course I immediately said yes!
The sacred art of foraging
So today was the day of my initiation into the world of foraging in the Sierra of Madrid. We went to Cercedilla to try out a new route and see if we could spot any edible leaves to put on our sandwiches.
We set out early and arrived at Cercedilla around 11 am and after a quick café con leche, we started our route. We avoided the main path, entered the forest directly, skilfully avoiding the Sunday hiking crowd.
We were soon up high and were rewarded by the beautiful vistas of the late morning fog rising over the village.
No sooner had we started, than Ernesto was already pointing out interesting plants. Wild thyme, laurel, and lavender- each with its own signature fragrance. It seemed that the path was littered with them! Each one camouflaged amongst their neighbours but each one special in its own right.
Further along and he´s pointing out a plant that just seems like an everyday weed. He picks a leaf. He tells us to try it. We place it cautiously on our tongue. At first, the taste was rather leaf-like. Nothing to write home about. But no sooner had we given it a few chews, than a bitter taste exploded in our mouths! Strong and sour, this little leaf packed a mighty punch!
Next up was another modest green plant, not especially beautiful nor fragrant. Yet once placed on our taste buds, a delicious taste of sweet lemon brought a smile to all of our faces. How could such a normal-looking plant, hidden in the undergrowth of the forest be so delicious? A perfect plant to add to your tea we decided.
Further along, we came to a forest stream. Clear and pure, it´s tinkling sound was pure music in the silence of the mountain. As we, mere ´standard´ hikers were about to make our away across the river oblivious to what we were about to miss, Ernesto was already leaning into the stream and pointing out another vivid green plant, this time with tiny round leaves
Again Ernesto tells us to give it a try.
´Bet this doesn´t taste like much´ I thought. How much flavour can these tiny leaves have?
And once again, nature proved me wrong and as soon as I put the stem of tiny cute looking leaves into my mouth than a fiery pepperiness exploded on my tongue.
´Bloody hell!´ were the first words out of my mouth! How do these little things have so much power! I will definitely be back to try riverbank watercress.
As we meandered our way through the woods, I realised that we were completely off the track and exploring in our own way, as if the plants, the forest and the mountains were conspiring to help us weave our way and discover their secrets.
This was a different experience to the usual way of hiking that I am accustomed to here in Madrid. Nor was it the gentle slopes of England that I am used to back home. Whereas back in Bolton I know the land like the back of my hand and roam freely off-piste, here this is completely unfamiliar territory- a vast mountain range that you could quite easy to get lost in.
Therefore, normally when I do hikes in the Sierra of Madrid, I more or less stick to the path and don´t wander too far from where I am familiar. Often we follow the marked route and spend a good couple of hours going up the mountain- with a few pitstops- have lunch with a nice view, and then slowly make our way back down again.
A different approach to hiking
You go up the mountain, you go down the mountain. This is the main purpose of a hike, right? You have accomplished something- congratulations, you made it to the top! You wave a stick in the air and shout the cry of the conquistador when you are the first one of your group to make it. Then you enjoy your success and go back down with a sense of achievement.
However, this time was different. The random wandering without any apparent destination and the gentle incline made it more peaceful. We had no fixed destination- we were just there to enjoy the forest and be with the mountain.
This felt like a much more feminine approach to the mountain. We were not there to conquer it, to race to the top, or just to get some exercise. Instead, we gently made our way around it, through the undergrowth, in between the trees, over the streams…we were in communion, appreciating the small sensuous gifts of nature that seemed to be everywhere.
How easy it would have been to miss out on such a sensuous feast if we had been in a rush to get somewhere! (And if Ernesto hadn´t been with us, let´s be honest! )
We came across plants with fun names such as the navel-wort and tapa culos (blocked bum!) and vibrant fungi called witches butter. We even found a strange worm-like thing that even mystified Ernesto!
As we made our way out of the forest we came to a clearing where there were, what we thought were big, black bulls. Powerful and muscular with the horns to match, we gave them a wide birth and went looking for a place to have lunch.
Again following an invisible path, the mountain surprised us yet again with a beautiful clearing with some big rocks perfect for lunching. And what´s more, we had an amazing view over the village below- what could be better? A quiet spot and un bocadillo de tortilla- what more could you ask for?
As we climbed on to the rocks we realised that we were not alone. Just on the other side of the rock and bushes was a big, black bull, resting. Dignified and calm, it sat looking out over the edge of the mountain.
´It´s Nandi the Bull from the ashram in India!´ was my first thought.
In front of the main temple in the Isha Yoga Center, there sits a huge black sculpture of Nandi the Bull, the divine guardian of Shiva. It is said that he guards the temple, waiting for Shiva in meditative stillness yet ready for action, as depicted by his left hoof being in position to jump up at any given moment.
And here in front of me was a real-life Nandi- calm, serene and meditative. He didn´t even bat an eyelid when we appeared on the rock and he stayed in calm contemplation of the mountain whilst we had our lunch.
We stayed on the rock for a while and philosophised about life, nature and society. Just when I was getting excited telling the others about the feminine in nature and the return of the Goddess, Nandi turned our way and let out a long, nasal ´pphhhhhhhhhhhhffffff´.
´He´s telling me to calm down!´ I thought. I was disturbing his meditative vibe!
Ok, Nandi I´ll relax.
A moment later and he starts to get up.
Uh oh now we´ve done it! We´ve only gone and pissed off Nandi!
But low and behold, a new creature that we hadn´t yet seen comes in to view.
A fluffy grey creature, a fraction of the size of Nandi stumbles out of the bushes and towards him. And that´s when we realise that Nandi, isn´t Nandi the bull…
Its the Mother Cow Goddess and this is her child.
And just like that, the calm, meditative Nandi transforms into the Mother Goddess, feeding her child, the ultimate symbol of divine femininity. A mother feeding her baby milk made from her own body- the sacred act of the divine feminine.
We watch in amazement as this intimate scene unfolds before our eyes. How wrong we had been!
As the child fed on her body, The Goddess looked on with serenity. And when the babe had had its fill they began to make their way back to the field.
Slowly she walked, her strong shoulders swaying step by step. Powerful yet graceful she strode on, her baby just about keeping up behind her.
And then as she was about to disappear into the forest she stopped and paused.
The silence of the forest enveloped us.
Dignified she stood, head high, horns raised. Her coat glistening in the afternoon sun, showing the flex of her back muscles.
Suddenly she let out a deep belly roar:´Mmmuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!´
And with that, she was gone.
And that´s we realised that we had been in the presence of the Goddess.
It seemed as this was the sign we needed to begin the return journey back to the city. As we made our way back the way we came, we contemplated what the mountain had been generous enough to show us.
And as a parting gift hidden amongst the pine needles and leaves, we stumbled across a single autumn crocus (meadow saffron), another edible plant. There she stood, delicate and elegant. In keeping with the theme of the sacred feminine, she also goes by the name of ´naked lady´. But just like a Greek Goddess, she bore no shame of her nakedness, and instead, she wore it with pride and glory for all to see.
Discovering the gifts of nature
As we approached civilisation, Anthony commented that Ernesto must have extraterrestrial abilities to spot things so small and hidden. But Ernesto insists that it is just a matter of paying attention and that nature´s gifts are available to everyone.
We just need to become children again and get closer to the Earth.
So with that, we made the descent back into the world of man and into the concrete jungle. We were unusually quiet on the train ride back to the city, all of us contemplating the mysteries that we had been lucky enough to get a glimpse of.
Now, back at home in my pyjamas, my heart is comforted knowing that The Goddess and Child continue to roam the mountain top, watching over the village below and stewarding the forest; overseeing us all.
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