Backyard Naturalist: Join Ol’ Man Winter With a Bowl of Nettle Soup

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Jan. 28, 2005.
Russ Mohney

Every year about this time, winter rolls up his tattered overcoat, grumbles a half-hearted adieu, and heads off on summer vacation. Winter would like us to believe his grumpy façade, but he’s actually not that way at all. Truth be known, winter becomes a pussycat in his old age and some of us — notably snowshoe trekkers, tobogginists, ski resort habitués and a few winter Olympians — hate to see him go.

Over the decades, we’ve had a chance to see what Ol’ Man Winter is really like, and he isn’t at all the scoundrel he’s painted by summer soldiers and New England snowplow drivers.

Oh, I have to agree that sometimes his contrary sense of humor breaks out and he will conjure up a small snowstorm just about the time we’re all fed up with tire chains and slickery sidewalks, but if you listen carefully you just might hear him giggling as April comes pounding on the door.

It is my experience that winter, early or late, takes great pains to make sure the most tender of spring plants are protected against the odd ill wind. He is sure that chittering grouse chicks and hairless baby chipmunks are sufficiently insulated to survive a few days of turmoil between his departure and the onset of an honest spring.

He even leaves a few pleasantries for we smart-aleck humans. You might not think so while you’re chiseling the crusted ice off your galoshes, but he’s made the transition easy for us.

I submit as evidence a stroll I took above Mill Creek last week (the Mill Creek that crosses state Route 6 at Littell) to confirm the presence of a flock of Tundra Swans. The big birds were there as suspected, but the surprise came when I wandered through a fresh patch of emerald-green nettles in the old riverbottom loam. They were fresh and tender and eager, it seems, to participate in a springtime pot of nettle and potato-bacon soup.

I spent the last hour before dusk prowling a copse of nearby cottonwoods, stirring up the composted duff in hopes of discovering enough early Morel mushrooms to make a hearty side dish to my soup. Alas, the mushrooms weren’t to be — but the soup was.

I have mentioned before that I firmly believe there is a magic potion that gives a person both longevity and the spirit required to greatly enjoy it. Fresh nettle soup is a little bit wild vegetable and a lot enchantment … and fresh nettle soup is, indeed, that wondrous spiritual tonic.

The nettle-soup-eater may endure stomach rumblings and occasional distress, perhaps, but is universally healthier than any creaky companion who wastes his daily caloric ration on filet mignon, rich sauces, and lobsters.

The magic, contrary to the protestations of generations of hippies and baby boomers, is in the nettle, not the mushroom.

As I looked at the early ornamental cherry blossoms against one of the bluest skies I can recall, I felt it necessary to pause and give the departing winter my most sincere Irishman’s blessing. I wish him well until we meet again in November.

It was winter, after all, that set the stage for Saturday’s unexpected crop of delightful nettles and protected them from a lingering frost. It was therefore not so presumptuous to offer him a word of thanks, even as we eyed that thick young clump of creekside nettles and thought of the pot of soup that would be simmering come sundown.

It is nature herself, however, that put these treasures within our grasp and urges us to enjoy them for the health, nutrition, hearty flavor, and the splendid seasoning of self-sufficiency the soup brings to our lives.

To realize that a suppertime bowl so utterly agreeable is also partly responsible for a long and robust life puts this whole business of gathering nettles back into the realm of ordinary, everyday magic.

Why not make a pot for yourself on a sunny spring afternoon. An hour out on the creek and another in the kitchen enveloped in the heady fragrance of nettle soup will do you a world of good.

If you’ll pardon my saying so, you’ve been looking a trifle puny lately!
Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.