Taproot Contributors :: Ashley English’s A Year of Picnics

Editor's Note:

Ashley English has been a frequent contributor and friend to Taproot since our very first issue, SOIL. A mother, gardener, and writer, Ashely has written many books on the topics of food and homesteading. This week, she released not one - but two - books into the world (not to mention a baby! Congratulations English Family!). Today, courtesy of Roost Books, we share with you an excerpt of one of her new books, A Year of  Picnics. 

May it inspire you to pack up a blanket, a bird book, a journal and the ones you love for a springtime picnic to the sound of bird song! Enjoy!

~Amanda Blake Soule


Bird-Watching Picnic

(Excerpted from A Year of Picnics by Ashley English © 2017 by Ashley English. Photographs © 2017 by Jen Altman. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.)

When I was a teenager, likely around age fifteen or sixteen, I started designing the type of woman I hoped to one day become. Informed by female characters found in film and literature, as well as iconic artists, writ­ers, and other creative types, I began mentally crafting a checklist of whom I hoped to grow into. On that list, along with a woman who enjoyed listening to chamber music, baked a fine cake, and enjoyed a daily cocktail, I knew I wanted to become a naturalist. 

My mother, though possessed of a number of skills, could never be called much of a “natural woman.” The same can be said of my father and of most members of my close family. Perhaps in part motivated to know things they didn’t, I decided early on to learn plant and animal identification, as well as other types of botanical and biological information. I’ve been on a quest ever since. 

While I can now distinguish an oak from a maple, and yarrow from Queen Anne’s lace, I still have a good deal to learn about birds. I’m not an avid birder, but the idea of languidly sitting in a portable chair, warm drink to the left, identification guide to the right, and a pair of binoculars fixed squarely on a tufted titmouse or yellow warbler calls to me in the most pro­found way. Tuning in to birdsong also appeals to me, especially having recently learned that the calls of birds give a good overview of what is happen­ing in the area. 

This picnic celebrates birds and their awe-inspiring contributions to ecosystems. Incorporating foods made by birds as well as those meant to honor them, a picnic with a birding focus is fun, visually arresting, and, at least for me, humbling. Birds can do astounding feats with their bodies, and, in the process, aid the rest of the habitat they reside in. For example, bird calls alert other creatures to predators or threats. Their lofty position and literal “bird’s-eye view” give them keen insight into their entire environment. We humans would do well to learn from their example and help others as we help ourselves.

Make & Do 

select a site
Choose a location known to house a great number of migratory birds. This could be your porch or backyard or a bird sanctuary, botanical garden, or arboretum. Anywhere that’s a known thoroughfare or habitat for birds would work wonderfully.

bird sketches
Whether you’re a third-generation birding enthusiast like my talented friend R. Brooke Priddy Conrad, featured in these photos, or simply a budding naturalist, bring along some paints and pens and a sketchbook, and do your best to render images of the birds you see. Then you’ll have a keepsake of the occasion long after the day has passed.

journal notes
Alongside images of the birds, jot down notes relevant to their physical and auditory characteristics. Making note of colors, plumage patterns, calls, and other distinguishing traits will aid you in being able to properly identify specific species in the future.

There’s a reason multitudes of people the world over enjoy watching birds. It’s entertain­ing, educational, and calming, and it’s all free. Do consider investing in a decent pair of binoculars, either new or used. Turn your gaze to the trees and behold the splendor of the many winged beauties above.

birding guides
The appearance of different bird species in an area is informed by climate, environment, and topography. A birding guide specific to your given location will prove indispensable in identification. There are also auditory guides available, either to purchase in CD form or to download online. Sometimes it’s the uniqueness of a bird’s call that is the deciding factor in deciphering who’s who. 

Birdseed Cookies

Early every December, I host a cookie exchange at my home. Several years ago, my friend Rachel’s contribution was what she called Birdseed Cookies. This is my homage both to Rachel’s cookies and to the mix of nuts and seeds in birdseed blends. Though it may be “for the birds,” it’s amazingly tasty for the human set, too. MAKES 2 DOZEN COOKIES

you will need
3⁄4 cup rolled oats
1⁄2 cup millet
11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3⁄4 cup (11⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup roasted and salted peanuts
1⁄2 cup raisins
1⁄3 cup roasted and salted sunflower seeds

to make
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Spread the rolled oats and millet over a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until fragrant and slightly browned. Set aside to cool. Turn off the oven.
2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat together the brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and eggs until pale and creamy, around 3 to 4 minutes.
4. With the mixer on low, beat in the flour mixture just until fully combined. Stir in the toasted oats and millet and the peanuts, raisins, and sunflower seeds. Transfer the dough to a lidded container. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
5. Heat the oven to 350°F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper. Spoon 1 tablespoon of batter for each cookie onto the baking sheets, spacing cookies 1 inch apart.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned, rotating the baking sheets halfway through the baking time. Let the cook­ies cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to cooling racks to cool completely.