It wasn’t that long ago in the history of the United States that small communities made the world go round. Urbanization took a back seat to farming, fishing, hunting, and gathering fruit and vegetables from the wild. You would be hard-pressed today trying to survive in a big city if you had to grow, catch, and gather your own food. Yes, New York City and all the other big ones have a few things to glean from the parks, wires, streets, sewers, and transportation tunnels, but in a place where there are many more people than there are squirrels, rats, and pigeons to feed them, things would turn mighty desperate and quickly if markets, restaurants, and sidewalk vendors all shut down.
In the past, ethnic groups migrated as much to find food as to find freedom. The sizes of rural communities were determined as much by the available resources — food, water, shelter materials — as they were by choice of neighbors and closeness to relatives. Today, via programs like the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, we put away a lot of passive parklands and nature sanctuaries for safekeeping. It’s not just a matter of the open spaces and concomitant view-sheds that we are salting away; it’s the resources.
When the original town fathers, say, the trustees, split up the land into chunks (after purchasing it from the local indigenous people for a pittance), the idea was to allot enough land to each would-be freeholder to provide enough lumber, firewood, arable soil, well water reserves, and the like to raise a family. It wasn’t until the 1900s that large lots began to be split up into tiny lots as small as the less than quarter-acre one that I and my wife, Julie, share in Noyac.
You can hardly raise a cow or pigs on a quarter acre, but you can raise chickens should the local ordinances allow it. You can even have a small garden, but one would find it hard to grow enough food on such a small plot to last for more than a month or so.
The open space that belongs to everyone in the community also serves as a “commons” to ensure survival in a rural setting. The forefathers were wise in making sure that the bay and creek bottoms and the waters above them could be used by everyone for the harvesting of clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, fish, and other seafood. The old rule about only taking oysters during the “R” months was good for all in the community, because oysters spawned in the months without an R in their names, which ensured reproduction for future years. One by one little rules were established so that the resource would last indefinitely.
Side by side each town, village, and hamlet shared the resources among themselves. If someone got greedy and took more then their share there was hell to pay. Domestic pigs were allowed to roam in the woods to feed on plants and acorns, chickens “free-ranged” hundreds of years before the term became part of our everyday vocabulary. Churches preached sharing and leading a good life. There were very few crimes, very few criminals, almost no murders. People got together to build barns, work the land, catch fish, and the like. One might say that all the farmers markets that have sprung up locally and around the country lately are vestiges of those early times.
Whaling and fishing from shore was one of those cementing community ventures. Just as it takes a lot of volunteer firefighters to put out a house fire, it took a lot of hands to harpoon a whale from near shore or bring in a large net. Haul-seining was the final act of such cooperation and sharing of effort. Practically every man in the community helped pull the quarter-mile-long nets in before there were motor-driven winches, but even after their introduction, 20 men or more would participate in a haul. Young boys would work alongside their fathers and in that way would be initiated into the fishermen’s lot. When fishery science took over and the beaches were filled with regulators, haulseining died an agonizing death and baymen were forced to go their separate ways.
Fortunately, the land is there in case calamity strikes and we need to go back to it. In the meantime, why not practice for an Armageddon that may never come. “Be prepared.” Every Boy Scout knows that one. Learn to fish, learn to clam, maybe even hunt. Pick wild berries. The blueberries are just about gone, but beach plums are ripening as are the wild cherries. I know one local fellow who makes bread out of white oak acorns each year. Many locals make delicious wine from wild elderberries and fox grapes. Cranberries are developing nicely. Pick and glean, glean and pick, but always obey that old canon: “Don’t take more than you and your family and/or neighbors can use.” Extras can go to the food pantry or the birds.
You would surely be surprised to find out just how many things out there in those wide open spaces are edible, how nutritious they can be, and how good they can taste. Those that are not edible can often be used as palliatives or healers. Some can serve both needs. I’ll never forget the lady from Montauk who used to work in the East Hampton Town assessor’s office. She got bit by a brown recluse spider and turned to an age-old remedy: She took two green potatoes, mashed them up finely into a puree, then applied that puree directly to the spider bite as a poultice. She left it on overnight and by morning the bite had faded away. I gave the recipe to my sister in Cutchogue after she got bittens by a brown recluse. A poultice worked for her as well. A poultice made from the tuber of Apios americana, or groundnut, which gave Sagaponack its Algonkian name, would probably work, too.
And, oh yes, be especially careful when gathering mushrooms. Many are edible, but several, such as the most toxic of the amanitas, will knock you off in less than an hour after you eat them.