My super-cool pal Mary Mac guest blogs today, sharing an adventure story from her trip to Australia in 2009.
I have this tendency to... eat things. I mean, really, I eat a lot of things. And I practice very little discrimination when it comes to deciding what new thing I should venture to consume. The weirder something looks, the more willing I am to eat it.
Experiencing new places is one my favorite things to do, but I can’t really fully experience a place without doing two things: tasting a bunch of the regional flavors, and familiarizing myself with the flora of the area (I’m a treehugger, a forester, and a gardener). So naturally, I’m thrilled if I can combine my love of regional flavors with my love of regional plants (i.e. foraging in the woods!).
I took a trip up the coast of North Queensland, Australia in May of 2009, with a group of students from the University of Florida. At 26, I was the oldest student in the group of (rather picky and McDonalds-friendly) undergrads. This led to some rather interesting interactions with the other students; namely, the fact that I ate almost everything in sight, while most of them recoiled in horror at some of the unfamiliar dishes that I tried. (As a side note -- Australians are entirely uncreative in the kitchen).
We began our travel study on Magnetic Island, just off the coast of Townsville. Every few days, we travelled a little further north, heading closer and closer to the tropical rainforest (yes! There is a rainforest in Australia. And it is, in fact, the oldest rainforest on the planet). As a forester, I was most looking forward to arriving in the rainforest and spending a couple of days familiarizing myself with its offerings and ecosystems. As a result, I got progressively more antsy as we inched closer to the portion of Oz that I had been dreaming of exploring.
One day, about a week or two into the trip, we found ourselves in Yungaburra, a small town about three hours south of Daintree Rainforest National Park. We settled in to our hostel, On The Wallaby (http://www.onthewallaby.com/), and I promptly left the hostel and went exploring, along with a friend I had made on the trip, Chris. Now, I normally don’t point out things like this, but I feel that it is pertinent to the story: Chris was several years younger than I was, and he was also one of only two males in the group of twenty students. As such, he was maybe... I don’t know. We’ll just say that he often felt the need to prove himself. Okay. So there we were, exploring the sleepy little town of Yungaburra, when, whaddaya know, I found a MASSIVE black seed pod on the ground. This thing was huge; probably a foot in length. Of course I bent down and picked it up, and popped it open to discover a row of beautiful, shiny, tan-colored seeds. I looked up to find the tree that it fell from. What a beautiful and lush shade tree! It spanned the entire little corner park that we were standing in and was loaded with scores of the seed pods. My heart skipped a beat. We were only, like, three hours away from the rainforest, and already, the flora was beginning to look so lovely and tropical and lush and... well, tasty.
Now, at this point in the story, I have to track back just a bit. Before I left for this trip, everyone I knew sat down and had a talk with me. Everyone. Friends, family members, classmates, professors, co-workers. And they all said exactly the same thing. “Mary. Please promise me one thing. When you are in Australia, promise you will not eat things off the ground that you haven’t identified. Of all the places in the world for you to be careful about this... it’s Australia.” I must say that I began to feel almost affronted at how many people doubted my ability to take care of myself. I had practiced judgment well enough in the past, hadn’t I? I’d never died from eating an unidentified plant before, had I?
Now. Back to this seed pod. I looked at it, longingly, and then looked at Chris.
“Chris. I think we can eat this.”
“Mary. ...Why would you think that.”
“Look at it! It’s beautiful. These look like chestnuts.”
“Mary, I’m not going to eat that.”
“Chris, come on. What’s the worst that could happen if we just take a nibble?”
We bantered back and forth like this for a couple of minutes, when finally I just took one of the seeds and chomped it. I gave it a couple of chews and watched the indecision take place in Chris’ eyes. What should he do? Let this older, wiser, female show him up? Ah. There she was, chewing on this seed, with no abandon whatsoever. And there he was, watching on the sidelines. WHERE WAS HIS SENSE OF ADVENTURE?! ...Well. He found his sense of adventure and hastily grabbed the other portion of the seed that I hadn’t eaten.
My tongue went numb.
“Chrith, my tongue ith numb.”
We both spat out the mush and scraped our tongues off. I actually didn’t swallow anything for about a half hour, I just kept spitting.
I picked up one of the other seed pods and stuck it in my back pocket before we walked back to the hostel. Chris asked me why in the world I wanted to keep it.
“Because. We’re going to visit the Aboriginal elder and his family tomorrow. I bet he will know what this thing is. I bet you can eat it, Chris. There is probably just a special way to do it.”
He rolled his eyes and spat again.
The next morning, the class of twenty student piled into the bus and took a trip to see Phil, the Aboriginal elder, at his home and piece of land.
When we arrived, he showed us around his property. He was exclusively growing native Australian plants, and he knew the traditional uses for each one. This was perfect. Phil would surely know what this seed pod in my back pocket was.
After he showed us around, he asked if anyone had any questions. I shot my hand in the air.
“Can you tell me what this is, and what its uses are?” I asked, as I pulled a foot-long pod out of my back pocket.
The entire class looked at me questioningly.
“That? That is a black bean nut. It is one of the most poisonous plants on the continent,” Phil answered.
I cleared my throat. Now everyone was watching me. I saw Chris‘ poor face in the back of the group.
“So, uhm, what if you theoretically ate this. Like, what would be the symptoms and ... exactly how long would it take you to die?”
“Did you eat this?” Phil asked.
“No. Nope. Didn’t eat it.”
“No really. I need to know if you ate this plant.”
“...Nope. Didn’t actually eat it. Spit it out before I swallowed it because my tongue started going numb.”
“That is because it is full of cyanide.”
The entire class facepalmed. Immediately everyone started chattering. “Mary! What did we say? Don’t eat things! We told you not to eat things off the ground and then you did and then it was terribly poisonous!”
Meanwhile, I was mouthing, “I’m sorry for almost killing you!” to Chris, across the crowd of students.
He was not amused.
You may be wondering the moral of this story. Well. There isn’t one. I still eat things off the ground.
Most things you eat in nature aren’t going to kill you instantly. I would have had to eat a whole bunch of the black bean nut for it to do any real damage (though, admittedly, I did have an instance of the runs the next morning. Whether or not it was related to chewing on that seed, I don’t know). I still nibble, I still explore, and I still find pleasant surprises on my walks in the woods.
And, interestingly enough, native Australians did eat the black bean nut. They just had to spend a lot of time preparing it before it was edible. They mashed it up, put it in a fine net, and submerged it into a stream of running water for a couple of days in order to wash out the poisonous compounds. Then they used the mash to make flour, from what I understand.
Even more interesting is the research being done on this plant and its abilities to combat both HIV and cancer.
I think the real question is, why aren’t we eating this on a daily basis? Sounds healthy to me.
--Mary Mac enjoys bad puns, good beer, and things that glitter. She also enjoys cultivating community through Tampa Free Skool. Join her at TampaFreeSkool.com.