Driving down a long dirt road near Lambert’s Cove, 18-year-old Kevin Brennan pulls over next to a few bushes that, to the untrained eye, blend in with the rest of the sea of green.
He takes a few hand-made baskets out of the car and heads into the bushes, picking wineberries from the vine and popping them in his basket (and a few in his mouth). Mr. Brennan glides across the sticky and prickly wineberry patch that happens to be interlaced with poison ivy at the roots.
No problem for him, he’s applied a jewelweed tincture that keeps his skin poison ivy-free. And his basket — which he crafted from white pine bark and tied with cedar root — is soon filled with a few dozen wineberries sparkling like rubies from a gold dig.
“That’s nothing,” he said of his foraged fruit. “I’ll probably just eat these with some ice cream later.”
In the mornings Mr. Brennan mentors children at Sassafras Earth Education in Aquinnah. In the afternoons he might be found slaughtering chickens with Island Grown Initiative, foraging wild ingredients for Lambert’s Cove Inn, or shaking mulberry trees at Native Earth Teaching Farm. On this particular Saturday, July 28, from noon to 2 p.m. he will be hosting a workshop at Native Earth on edible forest gardens.
“I feel like the best teacher is the forest — the ecosystems and all the animals,” Mr. Brennan said. “I’m really into going out and learning from my surroundings.”
In his workshop he will be covering the basics of backyard permaculture, focusing on creating gardens that work with the wild rather than against it.
“You’re so closely mimicking what happens naturally that it doesn’t look like a human created it, that’s the goal.”
Although he has always been an outdoors lover, learning about permaculture, or permanent agriculture, heightened his love affair with the wild even further, especially on the Island.
“There’s a lot of wild food here. There’s grapes and berries and hazelnuts and just awesome stuff. So if that’s just happening naturally with no work, if all these edibles just grow here anyway, I feel like we should focus on those edibles. You have to make profitable forms modeled after the things that grow here naturally. I feel like by going out, observing and participating in nature we can learn more and adapt that to our farming.”
Mr. Brennan often forages for himself and for fun, picking blueberries, autumn olives and beach plums, and making flour out of acorns and sautÃ©ing Japanese knotweed shoots similar to asparagus. Last summer he was introduced to fellow forager and executive chef, Max Eagan, of Lambert’s Cove Inn.
“We started talking about foraging, and he knew so much,” Mr. Brennan said. “He [Max] showed me all his spots. He was really experienced but just didn’t have the time because he was a full-time chef.”
Mr. Brennan started collecting wild berries for the restaurant, and later these foraged food items would appear on the menu, such as striped bass with sea beans or a lemon balm cheesecake.
Mr. Eagan is just one of many mentors, as Mr. Brennan spends much of his time meeting farmers and naturalists from all over the Island, including Saskia and David Vanderhoop of Sassafras.
At Sassafras Mr. Brennan passes on the knowledge of nature to young people by teaching primitive skills such as foraging and fire building.
“I really like the idea of mentoring,” he said. “Traditionally that is how humans and animals learn.”
For example if he takes the children berry picking, rather than answering their questions about the activity, he asks them the questions: What does the berry look like? Taste like? What name would you give it?
“They’re learning but they don’t know they’re learning. That’s when they get curious.”
Mr. Brennan said the main objective of the camp is for children to connect with nature.
“It’s all about being kids again, getting dirty and not caring about the time. Everyone needs some nature connection these days. It makes you a lot happier, more thankful and aware.”
Having just graduated from high school, Mr. Brennan is now enrolled in Gaia University, an accredited “un-institution” with no campus or formal classes. Instead, credit is earned through documenting projects that require students to acquire skills and knowledge in areas such as grant-writing, filmmaking and permaculture with a core group of mentors.
“It’s inspired by how if you were to live in a tribe or village, if you wanted to learn how to hunt, you would naturally learn from the person who was good at hunting. If you’re self-directed, then it’s good for you. You find people to help you learn what you want to learn.”
Mr. Brennan said he is going to continue building relationships with land owners and farmers, having permaculture workshops and figuring out ways to incorporate native perennial crops on as much of the Island as possible.
“Primitive skills and indigenous people are my biggest inspirations. Anyone who is living close to the land.”
And as for the best foraging sites?
“Everywhere on the whole Island, probably in your own yard. There are hidden places everywhere, you just have to look.”
For more details on Mr. Brennan’s workshop to be held Saturday, July 28, from noon to 2 p.m., call 508-645-3304. Native Earth Teaching Farm is located on North Road in Chilmark.