Not everyone talks to the animals. If you pay attention, though, the animals living wild around you will give you lots of good information. You might be surprised at where this information comes from, if you’re not a tracker. My favorite movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy II,
refers to this during an opening narration, mentioning that the animals have told the Bushmen people that a certain type of nut is ripening. The narrator mentions tracking as the source of this information, but it’s a special type of tracking that the movie doesn’t cover. If you want to learn from the animals around you, you read scat, not just footprints.
Scat is poo. Plain and simple, what goes into an animal does come out again, and some of that doesn’t change a lot. Around here, the animals that keep me best informed of the wild harvests are raccoons. The coons like to visit my front porch in the summer, checking to see if I’ve planted anything interesting in any of the pots out front, while on their way to the compost heap out back. They usually leave a calling card either on the porch or in the path to the garbage pile. Mostly it’s boring news, nothing new to report. In hard times there might be a lot of paper in the coon scat, evidence that they’re living on garbage for the moment. Coons, however, love to eat good things, and they like many of the same things people like. They binge on good things in season, and coon scat tells me whenever something wild and good ripens. In persimmon season, you’ll find coon scat full of flat, sharp-edged persimmon seeds. If the pawpaws are ripe, the coons might not even leave the pawpaw patch in the daytime, choosing to risk life and limb for the chance to shove one more delicious pawpaw down the coon hatch. Pawpaw seeds look a lot like persimmon seeds, but they’re a little bigger and rounder on the edges.
Occasionally the raccoons tell me something unexpected. I found this message on the porch back in the summer and was puzzled by it for some time. Clearly the product mentioned was of excellent quality, because the coon gorged upon it and ate nothing else that day. Obviously a fruit, because of the liquid state of the poo, but what fruit would that be? Took me a couple of days of pondering to figure out that the coons were saying the black cherries were ripe. These small wild cherries are very good, but the ratio of pits to fruit is high and you get more flavor than fruit. My father liked to gather black cherries to make “black cherry wine.” I never much cared for it myself, but he enjoyed a jolt of it now and then. It’s simple, just pour a cup full of black cherries into a bottle of gin and let it set for a couple of months. Any overflow, you drink on the spot. The finished product tastes a lot like black cherries steeped in gin.
Black cherries are a good wild fruit, though. Making jelly from black cherries is possible, but labor intensive, and in earlier times my family did do that, with black cherries and all sorts of wild fruits that grew on our Ozark farm. If the seeds are too big to be pleasant, you squeeze off the juice and make jelly. If the seeds are small or crunchy, tolerable to the palate, you make jam. Black cherries make good jelly but the jam would break your teeth. Many of the old wild crops have declined in the years since I foraged for wild food as a child. Gooseberries, dewberries, and blackberries are harder to find now and don’t match the quality of the wild crops we harvested several decades ago. Huckleberries, the wild cousins of blueberries, are still out there but were always tricky to locate, fruiting in areas burned clear several seasons prior. Modern forestry practices do not favor the huckleberry patch. If you do have a black cherry tree close at hand, however, watch for the crop. They’re dependable. If a coon gorges on it, it’s good stuff. Trust the coons.